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Award-winning professor publishes 10th book on detective fiction

October 24, 2011

Professor of English Emeritus LeRoy Panek’s most recent book on detective fiction will debut on Nov. 8 from McFarland & Company Publishers. Titled “Before Sherlock Holmes: How Magazines and Newspapers Invented the Detective Story,” Panek’s 10th book explores the origins of the genre.

Panek was introduced to detective stories in the early 1970s, when he taught a January Term course on the subject. “In preparing I discovered that there was almost no criticism about the topic,” he said.

After writing a few pieces on Edgar Allan Poe, who is widely considered to be the “father” of detective fiction, he turned to Golden Age writers like Agatha Christie and John Dickson Carr.

His subsequent publications evolved from a new interest or request from publishers. For example, his book on the police novel resulted from a chapter he was asked to write for a book published by the Cambridge University Press.

Panek has won two Edgar Allan Poe awards from Mystery Writers of America and one George N. Dove award from the Popular Culture Association of America for contributions to the study of popular culture.

“Before Sherlock Holmes” has been, according to Panek, in the making for a long time. The idea came when he was doing background work for his 2006 book “The Origins of the American Detective Story.”

“I discovered that neither I nor anyone else had any real idea about how or why detective stories began…absolutely no one had looked at 19th-century magazines and newspapers – the kinds of things that most people read – as a source of detective fiction,” he said.

In his research, he found hundreds of detective stories published in those media, some of which predate Poe’s work in the genre. This led to the Westminster Detective Library project (found here) and eventually convinced him to look back at his own preconceptions of the early history of detective fiction and reread early works.

Although he’s not quite sure what’s next, Panek thinks he might look into classic mystery writers like Ellery Queen. Academic pursuits aside, “I also have plans to finish stripping wallpaper and painting the upstairs hall,” he said.