Joys of mystery learned at an early age; Sleuth: Whether it's from books or crimes that occur too close for comfort, the adrenalin rush can be addictive.


AT A TENDER age I was introduced to the adrenalin rush of crime and punishment, murder and mayhem in old Baltimore. My mother, often accompanied by her Aunt Cora, pursued police cars and fire engines.

They devoured newspaper accounts of wrongdoing and larger doses of crime fiction. They gobbled up mystery novels and attended matinees at the Playhouse and Parkway theaters whenever Miss Marple was on the screen or Alfred Hitchcock had a new movie out.

When a cat burglar terrorized the Guilford neighborhood -- as opposed to Guilford Avenue, where we lived -- they comforted me, a 7-year-old, by explaining that there was nothing in our house he'd want.

Not everyone under our roof shared this taste for the sensational. There were times when the fires we sought were just too scary and the sight of lonely houses off Charles Street Avenue surrounded by police cars was so chilling I shut my eyes.

But those were the exceptions. In the main, it made for never a dull moment.

It was not uncommon, on family drives, to hear my mother issue a running commentary on the homes of prominent criminals. She called them out like sites on the Maryland House and Garden Pilgrimage.

I was too young to know the difference between an embezzler and a poisoner, but she distinctly labeled the addresses of the great wrongdoers of 1950s Baltimore.

You would have thought she was a sub-lieutenant of Capt. Alexander Emerson, the city's vice chief, as she noted illegal bookie joints, houses of ill repute, fencing operations and shady corners.

Infamous murder sites were a favorite. Chief among these was the old Belvedere Avenue Bridge over the Pennsylvania Railroad tracks (now the light rail line, and the street's been changed to Northern Parkway).

It was below here that the body of a young Morrell Park woman was found in the 1950s. The police never solved the case. I think that's why it became such a Baltimore legend.

So was the unsolved murder of Clare Stone, a schoolgirl who never made it to her class in 1922. She was also discovered alongside the railroad tracks -- near Clifton Park. I was shown the spot -- at a distance -- as a way of drilling in the rule of never, never speaking to strangers.

When Mama got wind that the great man himself, Alfred Hitchcock, was using parts of South Baltimore for his classic "Marnie," we were off to Sanders Street and Riverside Avenue, where this 1963 film opens. (My father, who patiently endured all this sleuthing, outsmarted everyone and scored the big win. He got to meet the great Hitchcock at the Atlantic City race track about this time.)

He also had to suffer through the prolonged accounts involving the Corkran Hill Hideaway, a celebrated 1950s advertising scheme wherein a token was hidden in a famous spot in Baltimore. Over several days, new clues appeared in newspaper advertisements by Corkran Hill, a meatpacking firm.

I'll say this for my maternal detective: as an ex-social worker, who once monitored scores of foster children, she knew her Baltimore geography cold. And she wasn't bad at cutting through the clues that an ad copywriter devised.

She felt she's cracked the case when a telltale clue appeared -- "Look where there's plenty of tables but never a chair."

She thought the hidden charm (I think it was for a ham or maybe $50) would be in Pennsylvania Station, where there were in fact plenty of time tables. With three or four children alongside, plus a neighbor, we took off for the station via transit bus. We searched. No token. We searched some more, especially in a room that housed banks of public telephone booths.

The winner was announced several days later. Mama cried foul. She'd been through the booths and hadn't found it.

Not to worry. A few years later she went on WBAL's "The Quiz Club" and broke the bank.

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