I recently took part in a program called “The Craft of Writing Mysteries” at the Perry Hall Branch Library. I was one of five mystery authors on a panel that also included Milly Mack, Austin Camacho, Michelle Markey-Butler, and Kate Dolan. Michelle writes medieval mysteries and brought in a slew of medieval weapons and other items, allowing the audience to touch and hold them—carefully, of course.
I won the raffle that day, and you’d think that I, being on the program, would defer the prize, a basket of mystery-related items, so it could go to someone in the audience. But no, I did not because included in the basket was The Black Lizard Big Book of Black Mask Stories. As stated in the Introduction to this tome, this book is a “panoramic collection of stories and novels from Black Mask magazine (1920-1951).” Black Mask introduced the hard-boiled detective and published such authors as Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, John D. MacDonald, Cornell Woolrich , Earl Stanley Gardner, and many more.
The Perry Hall program began with an entertaining slide show on Maryland’s role in the mystery put together by Millie Mack, author of the Faraday Murder Series.
Maryland’s claim to Edgar Allan Poe, often called the founder of the detective story, is a bit tenuous. Poe was born in Boston and spent most of his life in New York, Philadelphia, and Richmond, but he did die in Baltimore in 1849 at age 40. The cause of his death is unknown and has been attributed to any number of factors, including alcohol, brain congestion, cholera, drugs, heart disease, rabies, suicide, or tuberculosis. He is buried in Baltimore, and a museum in Baltimore is dedicated to him.
In 1949 on the 100th anniversary of his death, a mysterious stranger began a yearly tribute to Poe, appearing at his grave site on the anniversary of his death and leaving a partial bottle of cognac and three red roses. These annual visits ceased in 2009.
Dashiell Hammet does hail from Maryland. He was born in St. Mary’s County in 1894, and his mother was from an old Maryland family. He grew up in Baltimore and Philadelphia and died in New York City in 1961. Hammett was known as the author of hard-boiled detective novels and short stories, often drawing from his experience with the Pinkerton Detective Agency. He created such enduring characters as Sam Spade, Nick and Nora Charles, and the Continental Op.
Millie Mack’s Faradays in her mystery series are modeled on Nick and Nora Charles.
Then there’s James M. Cain, author of Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice. He was born in Annapolis, Maryland, in 1892 and died in 1977. He is also associated with the hardboiled school of American crime fiction.
H.L. Mencken, “the sage of Baltimore,” was born in Baltimore in 1880 and died there in 1956. He was an influential American writer and prose stylist in the first half of the twentieth century and is also said to be a founder of Black Mask magazine. In the introduction to the Big Lizard Book mentioned above, Keith Alan Deutsch says that despite Mencken’s assertions of original ownership, his name does not appear on any masthead for the magazine. The address of the first issue is given as the same as Smart Set, which was edited by Mencken and George Jean Nathan, so there is a link. Deutsch could not find any chain of title indicating Mencken’s ownership in Black Mask or Pro-Distributors. Even so, there is a tenuous connection.
The mystery writing tradition continues in Maryland with new writers of the genre appearing every year, including Millie Mack, Austin Camacho, Kate Dolan, Michelle Markey-Butler, and, I modestly add, myself.