Baltimore is a city so layered of history and representative of the realities of contemporary American cities that it is a natural location for the mystery world's biggest annual convention, has in fact, been there once. I have never read a more passionate overview of Baltimore than in this piece which is written by our American Guest of Honor, Laura Lippman. Originally the introduction to Baltimore Noir, it is reprinted here with the permission of Laura and Akashic publisher Johnny Temple. More on the collection can be found at Akashic Books.
GREETINGS FROM CHARM CITY
I belong here," F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote of Baltimore, "where everything is civilized and gay and rotted and polite. And I wouldn't mind a bit if in a few years Zelda and I could snuggle up together under a stone in some old graveyard here. That is a really happy thought and not melancholy at all."
Fitzgerald was far from the first or last writer to feel a kinship with this mid-Atlantic city, although not all would have worded their sentiments as he did. Given that it was his wife's psychiatric problems that drew him here, Fitzgerald, who belongs more to St. Paul than to Baltimore, can be forgiven his cynical view.
As it happened, the couple ended up buried in suburban Rockville, Maryland, but Fitzgerald's Baltimore roots went deeper than Zelda's consultations with the city's best psychiatrists. He was a descendant of Francis Scott Key, who penned our unsingable national anthem, a song that Baltimoreans defend only out of civic loyalty. We can't sing it either, but we love to shout the "OHHHHHHHHHH" at baseball games, in celebration of our beloved Orioles. Which is odd because a true Baltimorean, one who speaks in the local accent known as Bawlmerese, refers to the team as the Erioles, as surely as he calls a blaze a "far" and "warshes dishes in the zink." (Baltimore joke: Why were the three wise men covered with ashes when they came to visit the Baby Jesus? Because they came from a far. Guess you had to be there. Correction: Guess you have to be here.)
Edgar Allan Poe lived here, got a boost to his literary ambitions by winning a prize here, and, far more famously, died here, creating twin mysteries-the truth of what happened to him in October 1849, and the identity of the "Poe Toaster," who visits the original Poe gravesite on the writer's birthday, January 19, leaving behind three red roses and a half-bottle of cognac.
John Dos Passos passed time on the North Side, as did Gertrude Stein. (With Alice B. Toklas, of course.) Ogden Nash punned and rhymed here. Dorothy Parker's ashes were kept in a file drawer here, but only because Baltimore is the national headquarters of the NAACP, which was willed her remains.
H.L. Mencken avowed that he knew of no better place to live. Across Union Square from Mencken's house, a boy named Russell Baker grew up. On nearby Stricker Street, Dashiell Hammett lived for a while as well, a trifecta of talent that should put Southwest Baltimore on any map of literary landmarks.
As for Baltimore's noir pedigree -- it was here that Hammett worked as a Pinkerton agent, reporting to an office in the Continental building, a downtown high-rise that happened to feature a decorative motif of carved falcons. Painted gold now, but thought to be black in Hammett's time. Am I claiming that the Maltese Falcon was born here?
Prove that it wasn't.
Today, Baltimore is home to award-winning writers such as Anne Tyler, Madison Smartt Bell, Stephen Dixon, and Taylor Branch. But perhaps one of the more interesting developments in Baltimore's recent literary history is the large number of crime writers that have emerged -- many of them from the daily newspaper, the Sun. No one is sure why Sun writers so often turn to homicide, fictional and factual; the theories are speculative at best, if not downright libelous. But it happens that Sun reporters have won the Edgar, Anthony, Agatha, Nero Wolfe, Macavity, Shamus, Barry, John Creasey, and Steel Dagger awards for their novels and short stories. Very fitting for a newspaper where James M. Cain once worked.
But then, to live in Baltimore -- Bulletmore, Murderland, according to one famous piece of graffiti -- is to be aware of killing; we have not enjoyed the sharp declines in homicide rates achieved by cities such as Boston and New York. We remain steadfastly in the top five, per capita, year in and year out. Statistically, two people died while I was working on this foreword.
Baltimore also has an odd geographic distinction. It is one of only two major U.S. cities that lies in no county. (St. Louis is the other.) Landlocked on every side but one, which is water, it cannot expand or annex. Squeezed this way, it is a perfect setting for noir, which depends on an almost Darwinian desperation among its players.
The Centers for Disease Control will tell you that Baltimore is the off-and-on capital of syphilis, but the true local malady is nostalgia, a romanticizing of our past that depends on much glossing and buffing, as if our history was just another set of marble steps to be cleaned. I have never forgotten listening to two colleagues at the Sun discuss the racism inherent in our celebration of the habits and attitudes of the Eastern European immigrants who helped to make Baltimore a great city. "Ask Thurgood Marshall how fondly he remembers Baltimore," one said of the late African-American Supreme Court justice, who grew up here. "Ask him if any waitresses every called him hon."
The writers eschew nostalgia without sacrificing affection. They confront the full irony that is Charm City, a place where you can go from the leafy beauty of the North Side neighborhoods to the gutted ghettos of the West Side in less than twenty minutes, then find your way to the revamped Inner Harbor in another ten. Homegrown Baltimore philosopher Virginia Baker once said: "If it ain't right and it ain't decent, stay the hell away from it." Alas, Virginia. Baltimore's not right. Fitzgerald's claim aside, it's hardly even polite anymore. But for a Baltimore writer, escape is the one concept where the imagination steadfastly fails. We belong here.