Baltimore in books: city’s character inspires| GUEST COMMENTARY

Baltimore film maker John Waters, center, meets with fans Crystal Leonhardt, of Towson, right, and her son Burton, 10, as he signs his first novel ÒLiarmouthÓ at Atomic Books.
May 15, 2022. (Kenneth K. Lam/Baltimore Sun Staff)

Baltimore has its ups and downs, but for its recurring role in literature, the city is owed an honorary Pulitzer. For over half a century, and perhaps longer, Baltimore has performed as a main character, a sidekick, a point of arrival and departure, and an atmospheric backdrop in a wide variety of novels.

The 20th anniversary of David Simon’s seminal television series, “The Wire,” has sparked a fresh examination of Baltimore as a performing palimpsest in fiction — a place upon which each succeeding generation of writers imposes its own points of view about the city, urban culture, social justice, and the state of the world in general.


Take, for example, John Waters’ new novel, “Liarmouth: A Feel-Bad Romance,” which uses Baltimore as an affectionate source of anguish, anxiety and ridicule. What else should we expect, coming from the master of only-in-Baltimore bad taste? True to form, Mr. Waters mocks white women’s hair: “Oh well, what woman her age doesn’t change her hairstyle? Women in Baltimore, that’s who.” And he cannot resist a gentle swipe at law enforcement:

“Have you called the police?” Dad asks with some suspicion.


“Yes, of course,” Marsha answers stoically, “they did the report, but they’re so understaffed these days.”

“It’s just what Baltimore is like now,” explains Mom.

Honestly, Baltimore has cropped up in so many novels, it’s impossible to name them all. I’m highlighting just a few. In “Americanah,” Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie shares a lyrical affection for her newly adopted hometown. “Ifemelu came to love Baltimore,” she writes, “for its scrappy charm, its streets of faded glory, its farmers’ market that appeared on weekends under the bridge.”

Laura Lippman, the former Baltimore Sun reporter and bestselling author of the Tess Monagham crime fiction series, which is set in Baltimore, has reportedly admitted that her “subject is always, on some level, Baltimore.” In “Lady in the Lake,” a character offers a short lesson on Baltimore’s waves of immigration. “When my family came to America, to Baltimore, the Irish ran it, and they took care of their own. Then the Italians ran it and they took care of their own. Then us bohunks finally got a turn.”

Then, of course, there’s the prolific Anne Tyler; Nora Roberts (“all in all, I’d rather be in Baltimore,” a character opines in “Inner Harbor”); Madison Smartt Bell; and William Manchester, who wrote about political corruption in a fictionalized version of Baltimore in the early 1950s.

Of course, Baltimore figures prominently in nonfiction, as well. The city is vitally central to D. Watkins’ series of memoirs and, famously, Frederick Douglass’ autobiography. And let’s not even start in on big-screen film appearances, including one of my favorites, Alfred Hitchcock’s “Marnie,” with its grey-toned images of the docks near Fells Point.

As the author of three novels that are based, in part, in Baltimore, I have a great appreciation for how the city can be called upon to produce an infinite variety of scenes that serve the story. Whether brooding, sardonic, ominous or sunny, Baltimore has a street, a landscape, a neighborhood and a cultural touchstone to meet any writer’s needs.

I can’t predict what the future holds for Baltimore in real life, but as a subject that inspires novelists, I’m certain the city will remain a fixture in literature for a long, long time.


Amy L. Bernstein writes from Baltimore and is the author of “The Potrero Complex,” “The Nighthawkers” and “Dreams of Song Times.” She can be reached through her website,