Rex Raoul Stephen Sehler Burns was born in San Diego, California, on June 13, 1935. His father, who dreamed of retiring from the navy to edit a local newspaper, was killed during World War II. Burns was graduated from Stanford University in 1958 and then did a tour of active duty with the United States Marine Corps Reserves, during which he served as regimental legal officer and reached the rank of captain. In 1959, he married Emily Sweitzer; the couple had three sons.
In 1961, Burns began graduate work at the University of Minnesota. He earned an master of arts degree in 1963 and a doctorate in American studies in 1965. His doctoral research took an interdisciplinary approach to American culture in the first half of the nineteenth century. Examining the “gospel of success” by looking at popular reading, children’s literature, labor periodicals, and the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne, his dissertation became the basis of a scholarly book published in 1976 as Success in America: The Yeoman Dream and the Industrial Revolution. From 1965 to 1968, Burns was an assistant professor and director of freshman English at Central Missouri State College. In 1968, he moved to the University of Colorado at Denver, where he was active in the faculty assembly and chairman of the University Senate (1974-1975). He was promoted to associate and then full professor. He spent time as a Fulbright lecturer in Greece (1969-1970) and in Argentina (1977).
Beginning in 1971, in addition to teaching and scholarly writing, Burns began serving as a consultant to the Denver District Attorney’s office. The first of his detective novels was published in 1975. He remained a full-time professor; the popularity of late afternoon and evening classes for the students of an urban public university, who are often working adults, allowed him to spend mornings writing and to produce a book every year or two.
Burns has published numerous reviews of mystery fiction and maintained a regular review column for the Rocky Mountain News. A contributor to Scribner’s Mystery and Suspense Writers, he also serves as an adviser to the Oxford Companion to Mystery. In 2001, he signed on with the Starz Encore Mystery Channel as host of a recurring segment called Anatomy of a Mystery—brief studies of elements found in mystery writing, with examples of popular films that employ those elements. He retired from teaching at the University of Colorado but still serves as professor emeritus in English.