Faculty, students work on compiling The Westminster Detective Library database

The start of a one-of-a-kind, ongoing project at McDaniel that involves students and faculty can only be described by one retired professor as serendipitous.

English professor LeRoy Panek, who has written 10 books about the history of detective stories, had an Internet discovery years ago that led to the creation of The Westminster Detective Library, a website that houses American detective fiction prior to July 1891, and goes back as early as 1830.

"What we've discovered is a whole body of literature that nobody knew about," he said.

While researching for one of his books, Panek stumbled across detective stories in old newspapers that had started being scanned into databases. Before the databases, it wasn't possible to search online for the content of the old newspapers.

"I started finding loads of them," he said. "Literally hundreds of them."

Panek began downloading or transcribing the stories he would find and partnered with McDaniel English professor Mary Bendel-Simso, who would proofread the stories, create their bibliographies and put them on the website.

Bendel-Simso is still a full-time professor, so to help her with the project, students have gotten involved in the editing process.

"We've been helped out immeasurably by having student workers," Panek said.

This summer, rising junior Cassandra Berube and rising senior Anne Mathews helped to compile the history of detective stories.

Berube said their duties have included copy editing the stories and making sure the version they were given is the most original form of the story. Many magazine and newspaper publications would take stories published in different papers and use them, but a modified copy.

"Sometimes we do one, and then we find an earlier one," she said. "So then we go back and redo it."

It's interesting to see the progression of character development, plot and other literary devices in the stories, Berube said.

"The characterization of the detective is very different from what I think of nowadays," she said.

Mathews said the definition of evidence was quite different than we think of it in modern-day society. She is a big fan of newspapers, so she has enjoyed searching through the old publications, she said.

"I thought it was really cool," she said. "I never read a lot of it."

Both students said they've really enjoyed working on the project. Panek said people can see the appearance and disappearance of lawyers as detective heroes, the development of poison testing and can learn about the issues that plagued society.

"There was a lot of counterfeiting because the U.S. didn't have national currency until after the civil war," he said. "A lot of stories are about wills - the transfer of property was an issue, especially to women."

The beginning of detective stories was thought to be Edgar Allan Poe's work in the 1840s, which came before stories about Sherlock Holmes.

"We found that even before Poe, there were detective stories published in American magazines and newspapers," he said.

The Westminster Detective Library can be used for people doing research for courses in detective fiction in the U.S. and abroad, he said.

McDaniel students who have been involved in the project get a glimpse into the world of professional editing and a better understanding of how databases work, Panek said.

There are still many detective stories in existence that haven't been found, so Panek believes the project will be ongoing for at least another couple of years. He plans to visit special collections in libraries where some of the stories aren't available online in order to continue filling the website.

"This is something I think is going to go on," he said. "Especially as additional material becomes available online."

Recommended on Baltimore Sun