Two McDaniel professors have come together to unravel the history of detective fiction and, more recently, publish a book.
Mary Bendel-Simso is a professor of English at McDaniel College. She has been at the college — where she teaches her graduate specialty, Southern American Literature, as well as other courses in the English department — since 1995. Bendel-Simso lives in Westminster with her husband, Paul, and her daughters Flannery and Isabel.
LeRoy Lad Panek is a professor emeritus of English at McDaniel, where he taught Shakespeare and other English courses for 42 years. He is the author of 10 books on detective fiction and co-author of two books with Bendel-Simso. Panek lives in Westminster with his wife, Christine Mathews.
The Times caught up with Bendel-Simso and Panek to ask them about their project.
Q: What book(s) did you collaborate on?
Panek: "Early American Detective Stories" and "The Essential Elements of the Detective Story 1820-1891." Both are from McFarland Publishers.
Q: What is the premise behind your project?
Bendel-Simso: Our project is The Westminster Detective Library (https://wdl.mcdaniel.edu/). Its mission is to discover, edit and publish online every detective story printed in the United States before the publication of the first Sherlock Holmes story in 1891. It represents the discovery and recovery of material that dominated American popular fiction during the 19th century. In fact, many of the stories we have discovered predate what almost all scholars and critics think of as the "earliest" detective fiction. The collection now numbers over 1,400 stories from 800 to 8,000 words long which are either presently online or awaiting editing and digitizing.
Panek: Here is the premise of the new book: Until recently no one could reread the stories that formed the basics of the detective story in America and made it one of the most popular kinds of fiction in the 19th century. With unprecedented access to digital collections of period newspapers and magazines, this text examines detective fiction during its formative years, focusing on crucial elements of the genre — setting, lawyers and the law, physicians and forensics, women as victims and heroes, crime and criminals, and police and detectives.
Q: Why do you want to explore the history of detective fiction?
Panek: We're interested in detective fiction and its history for a number of reasons. First of all it's literature, and as such it's something that makes carefully constructed observations and comments on life and on society. And since we can trace detective stories back to the beginning of popular literature in this country, it also says some significant things about America. Besides, over the past 20 years, courses on detective fiction have become a usual part of English departments' curriculums.
Q: How do you collaborate with McDaniel Students?
Bendel-Simso: The Westminster Detective Library is an enormous undertaking. Not only have we discovered a very large number of forgotten stories, we also know for certain that there are even more to be found in this country — as well as in other English-speaking countries and in France. It's the kind of project that would involve a team of researchers and graduate assistants at a university. Our students make it possible for us to do what we do. They have gone to the Library of Congress with us to track down additional stories and work with us on campus as editorial assistants. For the past eight summers, teams of undergraduate assistants have read through stories gleaned from digitized newspaper archives, transcribing them, deciphering imperfectly reproduced text and correcting errors in scanned stories. They have been essential in the development of the website and last year became able to assist in posting the stories online.
Q: How is the Westminster Detective Library related to the books?
Bendel-Simso: The books depend upon the [Westminster Detective Library]. The first book (Early American) reprints and discusses some of stories we have discovered, and the second (Essential Elements) is a discussion of some of the basic features of detective stories, such as an analysis of character types (detectives, criminals, lawyers, physicians), setting, and theme.