LeRoy L. Panek, a retired McDaniel College English professor who was a highly-regarded scholar of detective fiction and the author of 11 books devoted to the subject, died of pancreatic cancer Nov. 5 at BridgingLife Dove House in Westminster. He was 78.
“For those of us who had the great pleasure of benefiting form LeRoy’s friendship over these many years, his legacy will be lasting,” college president Julia Jasken said in a statement to the McDaniel College community announcing Professor Panek’s death.
“He will be remembered for his intellect, his wise counsel, his kindness, his humility, his generosity, his humor, his grace and his deep commitment to the students, faculty and staff of his beloved college on The Hill,” according to the statement.
LeRoy Lad Panek, son of Lad Panek, a plastics industry quality control manager, and his wife, Alice Krejci, a middle school geography and social studies teacher, was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio.
A graduate of Rock River High School in Rocky River, Ohio, Professor Panek earned a bachelor’s degree in English in 1964 from Marietta College in Marietta, Ohio, and the next year, obtained a master’s degree in the discipline from Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.
After obtaining his Ph.D. in English in 1968 from Kent State University, Professor Panek began a more than four decade career at what was then Western Maryland College, and through the years, taught British literature, including William Shakespeare, and any other courses the English department needed to teach.
Professor Panek’s interest in the detective novel began in 1974 when he was searching for a January term course. Fascinated with the genre, he began writing articles including on Edgar Allan Poe, whose 1841 “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” is considered by scholars to be the first modern detective story.
He was the author of 11 books and was twice the winner of the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Award for “Watteau’s Shepherds: The Detective Novel in Britain 1914-1940,” and “An Introduction to the Detective Story.” His last book, “Nineteenth Century Detective Fiction: An Analytical History,” was published earlier this year.
He also co-authored two books with McDaniel colleague Mary Bendel-Simso, who teaches Southern American Literature, “Early American Detective Stories: An Anthology” and “The Essential Elements of the Detective Story,1820-1891.”
“This is really basic scholarship that no one has done,” he told the Carroll County Times in a 2010 interview. “But in the end, it may be more interesting than a lot of other research.”
The two colleagues combed mountains of American newspapers in search of detective stories that predate Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional and popular character of Sherlock Holmes.
“Our project is the Westminster Detective Library. 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,” Professor Bendel-Simso said in a joint interview with Professor Panek in 2017 with the Carroll County Times.
“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,” she said.
When asked why they wanted to explore the history of detective fiction, Professor Panek replied: “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.”
He added: “And since we can trace detective stories back to the beginning of popular literature in this country, it also says significant things about America. Besides, over the past 20 years, courses on detective fiction have become a usual part of English departments’ curricula.”
In “An Introduction to the Detective Story,” Professor Panek examined the stories of highwaymen and William Godwin’s “The Adventures of Caleb Williams,” and “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” and Wilkie Collins’ “The Woman in White” and “The Moonstone.” He also examined Charles Dickens’ mystery stories such as “The Mystery of Edwin Drood,” as well as the hard-boiled and police procedurals of the 20th century, many of which became background for noir pictures of the 1930s, 1940s and early 1950s.
Other of his works include “Probable Cause: Crime Fiction in America,” “New Hard-Boiled Writers:1970s-1990s,” “The American Police Novel: A History,” “Reading Early Hammett: A Critical Study of the Fiction Prior to the Maltese Falcon,” and “The Origins of the American Detective Story.”
In addition to his teaching, research and writing, Professor Panek wrote grant applications on behalf of McDaniel College as director of Corporation and Foundation Relations in Institutional Advancement. He also had been interim dean of academic affairs and dean of Planning and Research, and played a leading role in the renovation to the college’s Hoover Library and other campus buildings, and had been the longtime faculty secretary.
Professor Panek was the recipient in 1983 of the college’s Distinguished Teaching Award and remained active with McDaniel after retiring in 2010.
Even though he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer some years ago, and most recently with leukemia, he forged ahead.
“He was a warrior who loved life, and he was determined to get his last book done,” said his wife of 22 years, Christine Mathews, who had been in the college’s Instructional Technology Department until her retirement in 2014.
He furnished his Westminster home study with a collection of books, artwork and other memorabilia. He enjoyed roaming the world with his wife, and he was also a dog lover.
“But he was a person of words,” Ms. Mathews said. “He loved life, people and socializing and COVID-19 was hard for him. But he had a spirit that was amazing.”
Plans for a memorial service to be held at McDaniel College are incomplete.
In addition to his wife, he is survived by his son, Alex Panek of Raleigh, North Carolina; a daughter, Claire Bellows of Upperco; two stepdaughters, Leslie Durum of Roland Park and Hillary LeFay of Clarion, Pennsylvania; and 12 grandchildren. An earlier marriage to the former Susan Phoebus ended in divorce.