Kaitlyn Dunnett/Kathy Lynn Emerson here, today writing about reading (and writing) biographies. Like most girls of my generation, I grew up reading girls’ adventure/mystery series (Beverly Gray and Judy Bolton were my favorites, along with Nancy Drew and the rest), but I also read a lot of biographies, especially biographies of famous women.
From 1950 to 1961, Landmark Books published over a hundred biographies aimed at young readers. They were sanitized, I’m sure, but the stories were still fascinating and gave me a lifelong appreciation of well-told nonfiction. I did a quick survey of Wikipedia’s list of Landmark titles for those years. Not surprisingly, the majority of subjects were men. That said, the offerings also included biographies of some pretty interesting women. I can remember reading their books on Dolly Madison, Betsy Ross, Elizabeth I, Marie Antoinette, Joan of Arc, Florence Nightingale, Catherine the Great, and Queen Victoria.
I read biographies for young people from other publishers, too (I was a big borrower at our local library) and can remember being fascinated by the stories of singer Jenny Lynd and of Edith Cavell, an English nurse who was executed by Germany during World War I for helping POWs to escape.
The first of my books to be published was a collective biography of ordinary women of sixteenth-century England—not because that’s the first book I wrote, but because my novels set in that period failed to sell and I had all this research left over! When the rights finally reverted to me, I expanded and updated the text and the result is a very big e-book original titled A Who’s Who of Tudor Women. I’ve mostly written novels over the years, but one of the books I wrote for for young readers ages eight to twelve was a biography of nineteenth-century journalist Nellie Bly. The original version was titled Making Headlines. I recently reissued a new edition titled simply Nellie Bly, a biography. I also compiled and edited my grandfather’s memoirs (The Life of a Plodder), but that was an Indie project from the start.
But I digress. The real reason for this blog is to share my very recent (and near future) reading of biographies. By sheer chance, new books by three biographers whose work I’ve enjoyed in the past have just come out or are about to.
Lucy Worsley’s Agatha Christie, An Elusive Woman is a fresh look at Christie’s life, including a convincing explanation for her mysterious disappearance (and a thorough debunking of the theory advanced by Hollywood). Worsley’s previous books cover a wide range of subjects, and she makes frequent appearances in documentaries on various aspects of British history. She has an easy-going style of writing that almost makes you feel you’re reading a novel, but the book is well-researched and thoroughly documented. Her day job is curator of historic royal palaces and her office is in the Tower of London. Is that cool, or what? Anyway, I highly recommend this biography.
Daniel Stashower’s American Demon is also a page-turner, but I give you fair warning that although it is a biography of Eliot Ness, its focus is on Ness’s hunt for a serial killer in 1930s Cincinnati and the details are pretty graphic. I first met Dan at an early Malice Domestic. Back then he was writing a mystery series featuring Harry Houdini’s smarter brother as the amateur sleuth. He’s since won numerous awards for his nonfiction, most of which has a mystery/crime connection. I recommend any of his titles, but this one is particularly interesting to anyone whose image of Eliot Ness comes solely from The Untouchables.
Gareth Russell’s Do Let’s Have Another Drink won’t be available until November 1, but I’m really looking forward to what promises to be a unique look at Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother. Like the other two biographers, Russell moves around in history to choose his subjects. I haven’t read his book on the Titanic, but I loved his take on Catherine Howard, fifth of the six wives of Henry the Eighth. It is well researched and documented, includes numerous details I hadn’t seen elsewhere (and since this is my period of history, that takes some doing), and is written, like the other two biographies I’m recommending, in a relaxed style that doesn’t turn readers off by being too pedantic (a failing, sad to say, of many biographies). The premise of the new one? Apparently Queen Mum was known for her witty remarks. Since she also liked her tipple and lived to be over a hundred years old, quite a number of bon mots have survived.
Any suggestions to add? Feel free to recommend your favorite biographies/biographers, present or past, in the comments.
Kathy Lynn Emerson/Kaitlyn Dunnett has had sixty-four books traditionally published and has self published others, including several children’s books. She won the Agatha Award and was an Anthony and Macavity finalist for best mystery nonfiction of 2008 for How to Write Killer Historical Mysteries and was an Agatha Award finalist in 2015 in the best mystery short story category. She was the Malice Domestic Guest of Honor in 2014. Her most recent publications are The Valentine Veilleux Mysteries (a collection of three short stories and a novella, written as Kaitlyn) and I Kill People for a Living: A Collection of Essays by a Writer of Cozy Mysteries (written as Kathy). She maintains websites at www.KaitlynDunnett.com and www.KathyLynnEmerson.com.