For professor emeritus of English Dr. LeRoy Panek, retirement is by no means synonymous with abandoning academic work. In fact, he just finished his tenth book, titled “Before Sherlock Holmes: How Magazines and Newspapers Invented the Detective Story.”
Of his newest work, Dr. Panek explains, “This book essentially rewrites the history of American detective fiction by looking at a ton of new stuff that has never been available before. Well, it was in 1870, but not since then.”
The reason for the long stretch in which many early detective stories were not available to the public lies in their format. Early detective stories were published in magazines and newspapers, and though they were wildly popular among their immediate audience, people forgot about the precursor to what was for many years considered the original work of detective fiction: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, a series of 12 stories originally printed in 1891.
Panek’s fascination with detective fiction was sparked in the 1970’s by two events: the creation of Jan term classes at McDaniel and the expansion of the literary canon. Dr. Panek decided to teach a course on detective fiction and came to a stunning realization.
“There were tons of detective stories, but nobody had taken them seriously as literature,” he recalls.
These early detective fiction stories, printed in newspapers and magazines ranging from the New York Times to The Railroad Locomotive Engineer’s Monthly, highlight cultural elements from views on women to cigar smoking, yet remained latent and unread by the public for years after their initial popularity among readers. Thus, Dr. Panek teamed up with his colleague Dr. Mary Bendel-Simso to create the Westminster Detective Library, an online compilation of detective fiction.
“It is our intention to find and digitize every detective story printed in America before 1891,” Dr. Panek explains.
The 1,100 stories currently in the Westminster Detective Library served as raw material for Dr. Panek’s newest book, but the compilation process is far from over. Dr. Panek claims to find at least ten new stories a week, and these stories must be transcribed in order to go on the website. For about 2-3 hours each day since 2007, Dr. Panek has spent time transcribing the stories he finds so they can be posted online.
“It’s not easy,” he admits. “It’s like Edison with the 1,000 kinds of filaments, but maybe not quite as eloquent. But if you want the payoff, you have to do the work.”
To visit The Westminster Detective Library, check out: http://www2.mcdaniel.edu/WestminsterDetectiveLibrary/Home.html