There's a certain pride in opening a book where the action takes place in a recognizable setting. Reading about favorite watering holes, familiar streets and neighborhoods we call home is like sharing a special secret with the author. Here are a few books that are thick with references to many things that are uniquely Baltimore. (For a list of Baltimore authors who don't always set their tales in Charm City, see Based in Baltimore.)
"The Accidental Tourist"
329 pages, 1985
Pick up any Anne Tyler book and you'll find a tattered Baltimore neighborhood, a parade of eccentrics and some serious emotional calisthenics. But it is "The Accidental Tourist" -- whose movie adaptation made an Oscar-winner out of Geena Davis in 1988 -- that is considered one of Tyler's best.
In summary, Macon and Sarah's marriage crumbles after their 12-year-old son is murdered during a holdup. Macon, a skittish guidebook author who hates to travel, moves in with his two divorced brothers and spinster sister. Muriel, a wacky and garrulous dog trainer upends Macon's sedentary life and forces him to question his perceptions of love, relationships and trust. The ending is happy, and the pages preceding it are invariably touching, funny and surprising.
Other popular Baltimore-based books by Anne Tyler include "Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant" (1982), "Breathing Lessons" (1988), "Saint Maybe" (1991), "Patchwork Planet" (1998) and "Back When We Were Grownups" (2001).
"An American Summer"
256 pages, 2002
Baltimore native Frank Deford is one of the most versatile contemporary writers. Considered one of the best sports journalists alive, he has also worked as a commentator on NPR's Morning Edition for more than 20 years and published 13 books, including eight novels and a memoir of his daughter's struggle with cystic fibrosis. His most recent fiction work, "An American Summer," portrays the unlikely friendship between a 14-year-old boy and a young woman whose polio-induced paralysis has ended her swimming career. This touching coming-of-age story captures the peculiar blend of longing and isolation of 1950s suburban Baltimore.
290 pages, 1997
The first in the Tess Monaghan mystery series overflows with Baltimore minutiae: From the Hanover Street Bridge and place mat menus at Jimmy's in Fells Point to Domino Sugar's neon sign and "The City That Reads." Lippman is a former Baltimore Sun reporter and her intimacy with the city enlivens the descriptions of its darkest corners and brightest assets.
As she moves Baltimoreans to smiles of recognition, Lippman also pieces together a fine mystery. Tess is a heroine in the manner of Sue Grafton's Kinsey Milhone: A smart, brave, unassuming, resourceful creature of habit who considers herself well dressed if her hose don't run and her blouse doesn't come untucked. She's out of work and short on cash when she agrees to tail a friend's fiancee, a gorgeous lawyer. What follows is murder, deception, suspense and the emergence of an accidental, but thoroughly engaging, private investigator.
The other Tess Monaghan books include "Charm City" (1997), "Butcher's Hill" (1998), "In Big Trouble" (1999), "Sugar House" (2000), "In a Strange City" (2001), "The Last Place" (2002) and "Missing Children" (2003).
384 pages, 2005
Detective Kay Delaney of the Baltimore Homicide department is just starting to get her life back together after a fatal attack on her partner when a series of new crimes casts doubt on the guilt of her partner's convicted murderer. Canadian Illona Haus' first novel, a fast-paced police thriller, takes Delaney from Cross Street Market to The Block in search of the truth.
535 pages, 1997
This corner is the intersection of Fayette and Monroe streets, and you won't find it in any tourist guides. This is inner city Baltimore, where drugs, crime and desperation are as prevalent as ice-cream cones at the Inner Harbor. For a year, Simon followed three Baltimore police homicide squads and watched addiction consume residents of this West Baltimore neighborhood.
The main narrative centers on 15-year-old DeAndre McCullough, a streetwise hustler who is, in relative terms, resisting the neighborhood temptations with more success than his parents. Simon shows his readers no mercy. He throws the grit and language of the street right at us. We meet guys like Fat Curt, a dealer with "twenty-five years in service ... the gravel-voiced purveyor of credible information, a steadfast believer in quality control and consumer advocacy" and teen-ager R.C., whose only respite from violence comes on the basketball court. Somehow, amid all the brutality, death and addiction of the Corner, Simon manages to find glimmers of hope and promise in America's urban wasteland.
Simon also wrote "Homicide: Life on the Street" (1993), on which the popular television drama was based.
"The Crawlspace Conspiracy"
328 pages hardcover, 1995
Baltimore is an amiable backdrop to this story of government corruption, political scandal and shady deals. All of the subplots converge around the unassuming Charles Gage, who is living in a boarding house and scraping by on odd jobs when he learns he has inherited his Aunt May's dilapidated rowhouse.
There's Charles' do-good lawyer, Sport, and his sidekick Angela, who are out to prove the department of public welfare is swindling thousands of residents out of medical payments. There's a greedy state senator and an even greedier mayor whose political aspirations rest on the fate of a planned luxury harborfront condominium complex. There's even a politically active nun, a chronically unproductive and litigious state worker, and a decades-old accounting cover-up thrown into the reprehensible mix.
Keech was a Maryland assistant attorney general, and we have to hope that his slimy characters are drawn from his keen imagination, not his on-the-job experiences.
256 pages, 2003
Lancelotta's debut novel is set in the Baltimore neighborhood she grew up in. Martha, the single, 30-something manager of a jewelry boutique must reconsider her prized "independence" when her old lover marries her irritatingly perfect sister. "Far" has all the elements of a chick lit paperback, but Lancelotta's dark, evocative writing makes it something more. As she reconciles her Catholic upbringing with the urban reality of her life and faces the approaching end of her youth, Martha passes through the Inner Harbor, Fells Point and Mount Vernon.
"Garrett in Wedlock"
320 pages, 2004
Although he was born in New York and has lived in California for years, one-time Mount Vernon resident Paul Mandelbaum chose to set his novel in Baltimore. It turns out there's no place like the shark tank-level of the National Aquarium for witnessing your wife's ex-husband's mental breakdown. It's as good as any for Garrett Hughes, the protagonist of Mandelbaum's inventive satire of married life. After he weds Mary-Annlouise, Garrett must navigate a house full of assorted exes and the unusual challenges they present -- like giving up his master bedroom to Ex Number One, who's dying of mad cow disease, and fending off bigamous Ex Number Two. Mandelbaum, who used Baltimore as a scene for its "gentle eccentricities," has decided to set his next novel here, too.
278 pages, 1982
Baker, the famed New York Times columnist and host of PBS' Masterpiece Theatre, didn't move to Baltimore until he was 11 (approximately page 138). But many of the funniest scenes in this memoir take place in his family's Lombard Street rowhouse and later, in the Irvington home of his mother's second husband. In Baltimore he encountered his first schoolyard bully, suffered the humiliation of his mother collecting overdue payments from his paper route customers, and lived amid a proliferation of funeral parlors that made "disposing of the dead a major cultural activity."
It seems implausible that a respected, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, at one point in his life, would have no knowledge of political affairs beyond knowing that "Hitler and Mussolini were bad guys ... Franklin Roosevelt was a good guy of legendary proportions."
But this is just one of many self-deprecating admissions that Baker, a one-time Baltimore Sun reporter, reveals. Raised on the cusp of poverty after the Great Depression, he never even considered a writing career until his junior-year English teacher praised his essay on "The Art of Eating Spaghetti." Even then, he pondered a future in the grocery business until his friend suggested he apply for a scholarship to Johns Hopkins University. Given that Baker is such a well-respected journalist, it is surprising (yet refreshing) to read of his humble beginnings.
"The Hearse You Came In On"
416 pages, 2000
You'll come across all sorts of Baltimore place names in this first-in-a-series mystery starring handsome undertaker Hitchcock Sewell. The family funeral parlor is in Fells Point, a stone's throw from the Dead End Saloon. Hitchcock's now deceased parents met -- and conceived him -- while filming a Smithsonian documentary on Mary Pickersgill at the Star-Spangled Banner House. Before their untimely death at the wheels of a beer truck, the couple gained local fame by hosting a talk show on WBAL television.
Baltimore name-dropping aside, "Hitch" is a candid and irreverent hero. For example, consider his description of a mourner as "an animated ostrich with Coke-bottle glasses who was apparently taking her tongue out for a walk."
And yes, there is a mystery underneath the bizarre plot lines and merciless pillory. Hitch doesn't think it odd when Carolyn James wanders in off the street to ask how much her own burial would cost. That is, until a corpse with her name -- but a different face -- turns up on his mortician's table the next day.
Other books in the Hitchcock Sewell mystery series include "Hearse of a Different Color" (2001), "The Hearse Case Scenario" (2002) and "Murder in the Hearse Degree" (2003).
"Hometown Boy: The Hoodle Patrol and Other Curiosities of Baltimore"
336 pages, 1999
This collection of essays from a former Baltimore Sun reporter captures the essence of blue-collar East Baltimore and its working-class heroes. Alvarez segments the book according to the people, landmarks and business of his upbringing in Highlandtown. We join him in a peripatetic vigil for his paternal grandmother along Eastern Avenue, and we meet his maternal grandmother, who worked in Baltimore cannery six days a week during the Great Depression. Alvarez's writing melds journalistic thoroughness with fluid prose and personal emotions. His other collections include "The Fountain of Highlandtown," "Orlo and Leini" and "Storyteller."
"The Horse You Came in On"
274 pages, 1993
You can't go wrong with a book named for a famous Fells Point saloon, and "The Horse You Came in On" gets star billing in the 12th of Grimes' Richard Jury mysteries. In this installment, Scotland Yard superintendent Jury and two pals cross the pond to investigate the murder of a young man with British ties. Unexpectedly they stumble upon the potentially connected murders of a Baltimore vagrant and a Johns Hopkins Ph.D. student, along with a newly discovered Edgar Allan Poe manuscript.
The first conversation in "The Horse" clearly places the reader in post-Memorial Stadium, pre-Ravens times, and the discerning Brits lend great hilarity to Baltimore peculiarities throughout the story. The ingrained bitterness over the Colts' late-night flight. The regional accent, which sounds as if "constant usage had worn the sharp edges from the syllables, eroding Baltimore to Bawlmer." None of it escapes Grimes' eye. Even her description of Fells Point having "a pleasant sort of scruffiness that the galleries and shops hadn't managed to glamorize or suppress" is dead-on accurate.
"The Open Channel"
416 pages, 2005
Baltimore shares the scene with medieval Lincolnshire in this supernatural thriller by local lawyer, singer and novelist Jill Morrow. Katerina Piretti and Stephen Carmichael balance the demands of their trendy Federal Hill townhouse/upscale dining establishment with the pull of unfinished business in the netherworld. When their 13-year-old daughter Julia is tormented by frightening visions, the couple is forced to reconsider a bout with the supernatural they thought they buried 15 years earlier. With scenes in South Baltimore and at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen on North Charles Street, this second novel in the Angel Café trilogy brings the spirit world uncomfortably close to home.
The first book in the series, "Angel Cafe" (2003), also was set in Baltimore.
288 pages, 2003
The screenwriter and director tries his hand at novel writing in this portrait of 1960s Baltimore. A group of young men cling to the familiar surroundings of a diner in their childhood neighborhood as they confront the social changes of a new decade and the personal responsibilities of growing up. The real story is not that of the friends and their adventures but rather a study of a time and a place. A nostalgic backdrop of local landmarks from Lexington Street to Mercy Hospital brings together the characters' ventures into the new territory of the Vietnam War, drugs and the sexual revolution.
"The Trouble with Mary"
308 pages, 2001
Literary buffs and intellectuals would cringe at the cloying, formulaic plot. Feminists would decry the narrow-minded, chauvinistic view the male characters express of female domestic roles. But hopeless romantics and food lovers will make quick work of this Charm City romance.
Mary Russo, subject to the constant ridicule of her overbearing Italian family, decides to open a restaurant in Little Italy. Dan Gallagher, a divorced sportswriter-turned-food critic (who hates Italian food) writes a scathing review of said restaurant. Their eventual meeting and ensuing courtship can only be described as, in Criswell's words, "Boing! Zing!"
Don't expect heavy character development, major plot twists or psychological self-discoveries. Do read the simple recipes that introduce each chapter and chuckle over the fact that -- despite a first date cruise on the Bay Lady and the virginal Mary's appearance at an Oriole's game in a get-up worthy of the Block -- the star-crossed lovers still want to see each other again.
"You Poor Monster"
340 pages, 2005
The fourth novel by former Baltimore attorney Michael Kun tells the many stories of Sam Shoogey, an overbearing pathological liar, and his mild-mannered, well-meaning divorce lawyer, Hamilton Ashe. As Shoogey's claims -- college football stardom, war glory and a stack of mystery novels, among others -- become increasingly hard to swallow, "Ham" has to decide how much he's willing to put up with. Baltimore readers will recognize landmarks like the Cat's Eye Pub in Fells Point and the Senator Theatre.
Scene in Baltimore
A reader's guide to Baltimore-based literature
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