preloader image

Author Interview: James W. Marquart

Today, Feathered Quill reviewer Barbara Bamberger Scott is talking with James W. Marquart, author of Unthinkable: Who Kills Their Grandmother?.

FQ: Having started your academic studies in Law Enforcement, how did you end up working as a prison guard? Was it simply a way to pay for school while you studied for your Sociology degree, or was there a burgeoning interest in the prison system?

MARQUART: I was in a class at Western Illinois University and we had to arrange a “ride along” with the local municipal police department. During the ride along at night, at around 2 am, we pulled over a weaving car on the outskirts of town, by a cornfield. It was pitch black and the officer told me to “stay in the car and if anything happens use the radio to call for help.” Nothing happened, he gave the driver a warning and returned to the car. We went back to headquarters about an hour later. As soon as I left the department to drive home, I said to myself “that was the scariest few moments I have ever experienced, and I never want to be a police officer.” I told my professor about this experience and also about my decision. He thought it was great, and stated that it was best not to do something beyond your interest.

The next semester another professor arranged a tour of the Iowa State Penitentiary. I went on the tour and became fascinated with the world behind the walls. I went to Kansas State University for my master’s degree, and I interviewed around 20 correctional officers for my thesis. I spent a Christmas break at the Kansas State Penitentiary. I was interested in why they chose this field for a career. It was fascinating. One summer, I even worked for a few months at the Missouri State Penitentiary. These early experiences fueled my interest in prison organizations.

I went on to Texas A&M University for my doctoral degree and I studied with Professor Ben Crouch who was researching prison officers in the Texas prison system. I worked on a research project with him and we toured many Texas prisons. During these tours, I was fortunate to meet an old-time warden (Billy McMillan) and he opened many doors for me.

I was able to enter and walk around and talk to whoever I wanted to at the Ellis and Eastham Units, two hardcore prison farms that confined older recidivists and malcontents (over the age 25 and had been in prison 3 or more times). I visited these prisons at every opportunity and I even rode a horse and watched the line squads working outside and saw inmates dragging long white sacks and handpicking cotton in 100+ degree heat. I grew up in the Chicago area, and the site of over 1,000 inmates picking cotton, and being barked at by guards called field bosses on horses, was a complete surprise (and shock) to me.

I really zeroed in on Eastham and spent a lot of time there talking to the older convicts in the craft shop as they handmade leather wallets, purses, belts and buckles, and saddles. They all said “if you want to understand this place, now before it changes, you need to work as an officer.” They were right.

I did just that and worked as a prison officer at Eastham, for nearly two years. This experienced fueled my interest in prisons and prisoner control, judicial intervention, the guard subculture, capital punishment, and crime in general. I completed my doctoral dissertation on prisoner control.

FQ: Your other works were books that investigated “the system,” while this newest book, Unthinkable, looks at a specific case. Why the change and is there another case that you’d like to investigate and perhaps write another book about? Was the process of writing about just one case a lot different than investigating the system as a whole?

MARQUART: It’s not so much that the new book is something different or a big change for me as it was a giant piece of luck, very serendipitous. As I said in the book, this story dropped into my lap. My wife and I bought the former home of the perpetrator. It was a complete accident and we knew nothing about the house’s prior owners or their story until we attended a Christmas party over a year after we moved in. At the party, the guests were grilling my wife about what we knew about the house. Finally she asked what was the deal with the house. The guests then told us about the former owner who murdered his grandmother in East Dundee, Illinois and that he was arrested on the front lawn of the home. We were in complete shock. Walking home from the party my wife suggested that I write a book about the crime. I did so, as she is my greatest inspiration.

For me research topics almost always developed while I was around prisoners or guards or other academics. This true crime story was different and the case involved our home and begged for investigation. The project was a welcome change of topic.

I was fascinated by the crime and the personalities in the case. This was no “ordinary” murder as it involved a family member. For me, writing a true crime story was and is very different from the traditional academic writing style. But that difference is really about having more “freedom”to write about tangents, develop characters, develop a sense of place, and add dialogue. I like the nonfiction style very much and focusing on one case was a “relief” and allowed me, the writer, to dive into the story in great detail.

I am right now conducting the background research on two new books. One is about the abduction and murder of a college coed here in North Texas. This book will involve the history roads in Texas and a serial killer. The second book I am playing with now is or will be about crime on college campuses. This latter book will examine 2-3 specific murders on or near universities. We often envision college campuses as peaceful “bubbles” where nothing happens. I aim to burst that bubble.

FQ: What was the research process like for this book? Was it hard to get written reports (from police, etc.) and what was the reaction of people you contacted about the case? Did they want to talk or brush you off?

MARQUART: The research process was filled with ups and downs. I started initially with the newspapers and then contacted the perpetrator, who willingly talked to me about the case, all while pleading his innocence. The defense attorneys failed to respond. I had a few conversations with the prosecutors. However, family members involved in the case all remained quiet and asked me not to write the book because they were and still are traumatized by the crime. Our neighbors did not want to revisit the crime as well. I understand that completely. I discuss this difficulty of getting people to talk in the book. In fact, I called a friend of the victim’s and this guy who answered the phone cussed me out and threatened to call the police if I bothered his mother again. This was an omen. Yet, it happens to authors and you have to have a thick skin and move on. Actually the phone conversation noted above fueled my curiosity even more. I never have let a “no” dissuade me from pursuing a topic.

I read the trial transcript and pieced the story together like a puzzle. Once you get rolling or build momentum, at least for me, the writing process goes fairly quickly.

FQ: True crime stories are huge right now, just look at all the television shows (Snapped, Dateline: Secrets Uncovered, True Conviction, etc.). Why the fascination? What draws readers/viewers to these stories?

MARQUART: People are fascinated with “all things involving crime” because they want to know the million dollar question of “why did they do it?” However, the advent of forensic technology to help solve crimes has really escalated the public’s fascination and appetite with crime and how officials investigate and solve crimes. In a sense, members of the public like to play crime scene investigator and peel back the crime, find the perpetrator, ascertain the all-important motive, try the case in court, and assess punishment. There is a lot of drama and human emotions in crime.

FQ: Will your book be offered as a focus for workshops or gatherings within your academic/professional realm?

MARQUART: I am a member of the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences (ACJS). Their annual meeting is in March 2023 and I will be moderating a roundtable discussion about true crime. We will of course be discussing my book. I wrote the book with the general public in mind; however, the book is well-suited to be a supplemental book for a variety of college criminal justice courses.

My wife and I are planning book signing events at local bookstores, and even one in our house.

FQ: Do you have a favorite legal personality – judge, witness, etc. - among the ones you depict in your book?

MARQUART: I like Joe Kenda, the police detective, and his interesting delivery and perspective on crime scene investigation of murder cases. His shows clearly illustrate the complexity of these cases, and the detective’s methodical step by step research. Each case is unique and the viewer can watch and understand how the “onion” peels. I tried to do this in Unthinkable.

My “go-to” books are In Cold Blood, which really launched the true crime industry. My wife bought me a nice clean copy of Capote’s masterpiece last year and the pages are now worn. It’s a beautiful book, and I love how he developed a sense of “place” in the story. The second masterpiece, in my view, that I read and study is Helter Skelter by Vince Bugliosi who was the lead prosecutor in the Manson case. I love the dialogue and interplay between the characters, especially the Manson-Bugliosi exchanges. Those interactions illustrate how dangerous and manipulative criminals can be, so authors need to be forewarned when confronting felons. Finally, I admire Joseph Wambaugh’s The Onion Field, a tragic but true story written by a former police officer. Wambaugh’s ability to tell a story, using his street smarts, serves as a role model to me and my aspirations.

These three books shaped my interest in true crime and involved sensational crimes. Most important, the authors got “close” to the criminals—a closeness that affected the authors. These three books will always guide my writing and research.

FQ: Does positing and writing about the inner workings of the investigative/judicial process give you a sense of hope?

MARQUART: Studying the inner workings of the system does give me hope in the sense that solving crimes is at its basic level a human endeavor. It takes long work hours, dead ends, skill, and a degree of luck to solve a crime and obtain a conviction. New forensic tools are always being deployed. While important, these new tools will not replace old-fashioned “knocking on doors” and interviewing long lists of witnesses. I stand in awe of the investigators and other public safety actors who do this for a living. They are dedicated people who want to help the victims. After writing my book I am hopeful that their work and dedication will never fade away.

FQ: Did you find the composition of these true events to resemble in some ways the construction of a mystery novel?

MARQUART: In the beginning of this book project, I faced a real mystery in trying to understand why and how the perpetrator decided to murder his grandmother. I tried to place myself in his position and wondered why this happened. The whole process was like a mystery novel, something Alfred Hitchcock would produce.

FQ: Tell us about the Netflix series, I Am a Killer, that you appear in. What was that like? Is it available for viewing now?

MARQUART: In my academic research role, I conducted extensive inquiry on the death penalty in Texas, a very active state in executing capital murderers. As a result of this research, I was fortunate to testify in over 30 capital murder cases in Texas, Colorado, and even one Federal death penalty case. One of my cases involved Deryl Madison, who was convicted of capital murder in the late 1980s for killing an elderly Houston woman. Madison knew the victim and he killed for drug money. I testified for the defense on the topic of future dangerousness, as I had conducted some unique research on this critical issue in Texas capital murder cases.

The Netflix people did a story of Madison’s case. It’s part of the I am a Killer series, and my episode is called “It’s Not Me.” The episode appeared on television late August 2022. The film crew came to our house in Frisco, Texas and spent an entire day interviewing me about my role and testimony in the Madison case. In my humble opinion, the I am a Killer series is the finest true crime depiction in the media today.

It was a wonderful experience and I was overwhelmed by the creativity of the film crew. I am very proud of my participation in this wonderful series.

FQ: You served as President of The Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences. I suspect a lot of our readers have never heard of this organization. Would you tell us a little about it - its purpose, focus, etc.?

MARQUART: The Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences (ACJS) is an international association that was established in 1963. It’s been around now for sixty years and the Academy fosters professional and scholarly activities in the field of criminal justice. The beauty is that its members are a mixture of practitioners and educators and students. As a university professor, it’s good to to rub elbows with practitioners. Most important, ACJS promotes criminal justice education, research, and policy analysis within the discipline of criminal justice. There is an annual meeting where members present papers on their latest research on all things criminal justice—from crime, to police behavior, to court room practices, and corrections and reoffending. Your readers should check it out.

True crime is a hot topic within ACJS and there are now courses on the topic as well. I am hoping to teach one next fall semester. I served as President, an elected position, in 2010. I am most proud of my service to ACJS, it’s an organization filled with wonderful people and colleagues.

Read the Review

Feathered Quill

Disclosure in Accordance with FTC Guidelines 16 CFR Part 255

Copyrights © 2023 Feathered Quill Reviews All Rights Reserved. | Designed & Developed by