Lee was a Sherlock Holmes fan. Her students think she should be at least as famous as Holmes' creator, Arthur Conan Doyle.

Marks' film testifies to her stature and traces the contours of her life. What used to be called "legal medicine" tugged at Lee ever since her Harvard-educated brother brought home a medical-student friend and future medical examiner, who regaled her with real-life crime stories. Lee went through marriage and divorce, the birth of three children and the death of several family members before she inherited her fortune. She underwrote a Harvard chair in legal medicine and financed the establishment of a Harvard library on the subject; she also gave the university a $250,000 endowment for a legal-medicine department. She then conceived the Nutshell Studies. Lee became a legend in her field and was made a captain in the New Hampshire State Police.

Four years after Lee's death in 1962, Harvard closed its department of legal medicine because of a lack of funds. In 1967, Maryland's chief medical examiner brought the Nutshells into his office, where 18 remain under the protection of the Maryland Medical-Legal Foundation. (One of the original 20 was lost over time, and another was ruined in transit to Maryland.)

Ross and Dohony said one thing they'd want more of in a movie is Lee's life. Marks agrees.

In "Of Dolls and Murder" she makes clear how daunting it was for Lee to be closed out of men's worlds like Harvard and law enforcement. But Lee's family wouldn't talk to Marks about her. So Marks took the film in other directions.

She examined the influence of "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation," which devoted a season-long story arc to a killer who worked like Lee in reverse, murdering people and then creating exact miniatures of the crime scenes. Marks toured the Body Farm in Knoxville, Tenn., where forensic researchers put corpses through various states of decomposition. And she eavesdropped on a class at DeSales University that used a life-scale replica of a Nutshell.

Happily, Lee's heirs have now seen the movie and have warmed to the prospect of telling her story; they've even invited Marks to a Glessner family reunion. The filmmaker said she's already "40 percent" into a follow-up documentary that will fill in some of the blanks. Marks may not get the whole story, but she aims to present all the available evidence in a compact and expressive form — giving us Frances Glessner Lee, in a nutshell.


If you go

"Of Dolls and Murders" screens at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Hollywood Cinema 4, 5509 Oregon Ave., Arbutus. Tickets are $10; advance tickets ($8) are available through Monday at ofdollsandmurder.bigcartel.com. Director-producer Susan Marks and her co-producer/editor, John Kurtis Dehn, as well as detectives Robert Ross and Robert Dohony and members of the Maryland medical examiner's office, will participate in a Q&A afterward.

Waters as narrator

Director Susan Marks said she knew about John Waters' interest in true crime and thought that his wry attitude would help viewers relax with the material. "I wrote the narration with his voice in mind," she said. "I watched and listened carefully to clips of him on YouTube, to get a feeling for it. He had script approval and ended up not changing a thing." He did have one cavil. After stating, as scripted, that Lee's tales were not the stuff of bedtime stories, he quipped, off-mike, "They're totally what I like as bedtime stories."

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