Professors on the trail of whodunits

September 16, 2008

McDaniel College professors LeRoy Lad Panek and Mary M. Bendel-Simso are hoping to take some of the mystery out of finding old American detective stories.

The two are building, story by story, an Internet database, which will be called the “Westminster Detective Library.”

The database, which will reside on McDaniel’s Web site, will house hundreds of detective and crime stories from 1841, when Edgar Allan Poe became wildly popular with “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” to 1891, when Sherlock Holmes hit the fiction scene in the United States.

“People usually think nothing happened between Poe and Holmes,” Panek said in a recent interview. “But there were tons of stories published in newspapers and magazines during that time.

“The country was crazy about detective stories, the stories just never came out in books,” Panek added.

Bendel-Simso, who is using her sabbatical this semester to take a course at Carroll Community College in authoring Web pages, said what she discovered is that people just weren’t looking in the right places for these stories.

“At the time, most fiction was being published in newspapers because they were lightweight and people could afford them,” she said.

Panek and Bendel-Simso have been compiling the database for about a year and half, a tedious process that has involved scanning, and in many cases transcribing, hundreds of articles they have uncovered in their research.

About 40 of those stories were published last spring in a 358-page book, “Early American Detective Stories: An Anthology.”

So far, the two have compiled nearly 600 stories, with potentially hundreds more to go, Panek said.

“All of these stories are not worthy of being published in a book, but they all have historical value,” Bendel-Simso said.

Before this period of fiction, Panek said, most people believed that bad people looked bad, had humpbacks, and low foreheads.

“This type of fiction showed them a world where people who look like you and me do bad things,” Panek said.

Noting that police departments weren’t created until about the 1850s, Panek said the detective and crime stories gave rise to the discussion about the usefulness of police and detectives.

One of the project’s more ambitious tasks is the massive indexing that must be done to make the database as highly searchable as possible, Bendel-Simso said. For instance, they want people to be able to search using terms of interests such as fingerprinting, counterfeiting or political intrigue.

The plan is to have the Westminster Detective Library up and running with at least a couple decades worth of stories by early next year, and then add a decade at a time, Bendel-Simso said.