Scene in Baltimore

A reader's guide to Baltimore-based literature

books & mags

August 29, 2005|By Alexis Sweeney and Jessica Dzaman | Alexis Sweeney and Jessica Dzaman,Special to

There's a certain pride in opening a book where the action takes place in a recognizable setting. Reading about favorite watering holes, familiar streets and neighborhoods we call home is like sharing a special secret with the author. Here are a few books that are thick with references to many things that are uniquely Baltimore. (For a list of Baltimore authors who don't always set their tales in Charm City, see Based in Baltimore.)

"The Accidental Tourist"

Anne Tyler

329 pages, 1985

Pick up any Anne Tyler book and you'll find a tattered Baltimore neighborhood, a parade of eccentrics and some serious emotional calisthenics. But it is "The Accidental Tourist" -- whose movie adaptation made an Oscar-winner out of Geena Davis in 1988 -- that is considered one of Tyler's best.

In summary, Macon and Sarah's marriage crumbles after their 12-year-old son is murdered during a holdup. Macon, a skittish guidebook author who hates to travel, moves in with his two divorced brothers and spinster sister. Muriel, a wacky and garrulous dog trainer upends Macon's sedentary life and forces him to question his perceptions of love, relationships and trust. The ending is happy, and the pages preceding it are invariably touching, funny and surprising.

Other popular Baltimore-based books by Anne Tyler include "Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant" (1982), "Breathing Lessons" (1988), "Saint Maybe" (1991), "Patchwork Planet" (1998) and "Back When We Were Grownups" (2001).

"An American Summer"

Frank Deford

256 pages, 2002

Baltimore native Frank Deford is one of the most versatile contemporary writers. Considered one of the best sports journalists alive, he has also worked as a commentator on NPR's Morning Edition for more than 20 years and published 13 books, including eight novels and a memoir of his daughter's struggle with cystic fibrosis. His most recent fiction work, "An American Summer," portrays the unlikely friendship between a 14-year-old boy and a young woman whose polio-induced paralysis has ended her swimming career. This touching coming-of-age story captures the peculiar blend of longing and isolation of 1950s suburban Baltimore.

"Baltimore Blues"

Laura Lippman

290 pages, 1997

The first in the Tess Monaghan mystery series overflows with Baltimore minutiae: From the Hanover Street Bridge and place mat menus at Jimmy's in Fells Point to Domino Sugar's neon sign and "The City That Reads." Lippman is a former Baltimore Sun reporter and her intimacy with the city enlivens the descriptions of its darkest corners and brightest assets.

As she moves Baltimoreans to smiles of recognition, Lippman also pieces together a fine mystery. Tess is a heroine in the manner of Sue Grafton's Kinsey Milhone: A smart, brave, unassuming, resourceful creature of habit who considers herself well dressed if her hose don't run and her blouse doesn't come untucked. She's out of work and short on cash when she agrees to tail a friend's fiancee, a gorgeous lawyer. What follows is murder, deception, suspense and the emergence of an accidental, but thoroughly engaging, private investigator.

The other Tess Monaghan books include "Charm City" (1997), "Butcher's Hill" (1998), "In Big Trouble" (1999), "Sugar House" (2000), "In a Strange City" (2001), "The Last Place" (2002) and "Missing Children" (2003).

"Blue Mercy"

Illona Haus

384 pages, 2005

Detective Kay Delaney of the Baltimore Homicide department is just starting to get her life back together after a fatal attack on her partner when a series of new crimes casts doubt on the guilt of her partner's convicted murderer. Canadian Illona Haus' first novel, a fast-paced police thriller, takes Delaney from Cross Street Market to The Block in search of the truth.

"The Corner"

David Simon

535 pages, 1997

This corner is the intersection of Fayette and Monroe streets, and you won't find it in any tourist guides. This is inner city Baltimore, where drugs, crime and desperation are as prevalent as ice-cream cones at the Inner Harbor. For a year, Simon followed three Baltimore police homicide squads and watched addiction consume residents of this West Baltimore neighborhood.

The main narrative centers on 15-year-old DeAndre McCullough, a streetwise hustler who is, in relative terms, resisting the neighborhood temptations with more success than his parents. Simon shows his readers no mercy. He throws the grit and language of the street right at us. We meet guys like Fat Curt, a dealer with "twenty-five years in service ... the gravel-voiced purveyor of credible information, a steadfast believer in quality control and consumer advocacy" and teen-ager R.C., whose only respite from violence comes on the basketball court. Somehow, amid all the brutality, death and addiction of the Corner, Simon manages to find glimmers of hope and promise in America's urban wasteland.

Simon also wrote "Homicide: Life on the Street" (1993), on which the popular television drama was based.

"The Crawlspace Conspiracy"

Thomas Keech

328 pages hardcover, 1995

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