MURDER IN SHAWNEE
by John Douglas
WELCOME TO SHAWNEE
I guess it was natural that I set two of my mystery novels in a fictionalized version of Cumberland, Maryland since I spent most of my childhood there. In fact, the alley of Shawnee Alley Fire was my playground, and photographer Jack Reese’s three-story house was the house I lived in until age 13. The descriptions of the place and Reese’s memories of his family are pretty much real, if you substitute my family for his.
When I sat down to write a mystery novel and try to break into print in early 1985, I began with two things—the railroading neighborhood I grew up in and a dream I’d had of a mysterious woman who keeps returning to Jack Reese to be photographed in sexier and sexier costumes. When she disappears, the police visit him. I soon realized he didn’t have the wherewithal to solve the case, so I came up with Detective Edward Harter. While Reese had a lot of my younger self in him, Harter had a lot of the older me—a skeptical attitude and an edge from years as a reporter. I gave him an apartment not far from Reese’s house and had him go to the hotdog stands, hoagie shops and other places that I frequented (and still visit when I return to Cumberland).
Searching for a name for my city, I landed on Shawnee since the Shawnee Indians once claimed my region of Appalachian Maryland, West Virginia and western Pennsylvania. After all, the city wasn’t really the Cumberland of the 1980s, but was the Cumberland of my boyhood, projected into the future, with a few West Virginia ingredients stirred in.
Partly due to its portrait of a recession in a mountain town and partly due to the sexy photography scenes, Shawnee Alley Fire became a minor hit in the summer of 1987. Rereading it for this edition, I realized how much I still like the book. I’ve always had a soft spot for it since it brought me a little acclaim, was nominated for a Shamus award and helped pay some of my sons’ college bills. Shawnee Alley even earned me my first trip to Europe after rights were sold for foreign editions in France, Italy, Germany, Argentina and Spain.
I was finishing up Shawnee Alley Fire in November, 1985 when the events took place that inspired Haunts, my other novel set in the same city with the same detective. The spark was the reporting I did on the Flood of 1985 as news editor of The Morgan Messenger in Berkeley Springs, West Virginia, and The Hancock News across the raging Potomac River in Hancock, Maryland.
The flood unearthed some bones upriver in Hampshire County, West Virginia. While these turned out to be Indian remains, leading to an archeological dig, I wondered what would happen if a more recent burial had been uncovered. A story developed, again set in a blue-collar section of Shawnee. This time the neighborhood was close to the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal and the B&O Railroad shops where my grandfather worked. In my books, the canal is known as the Shawnee & Chesapeake and the railroad is renamed the Shawnee-Potomac.
Haunts, like Shawnee Alley, is full of descriptions of my version of Cumberland and the surrounding region. It begins with scenes of the 1985 Flood, including lines straight out of my newspaper reporting, and has its own set of social concerns. Haunts is as much a mountain family saga as a mystery and it’s quite different from Shawnee Alley. If anyone ever cares to compare the original Haunts of 1990 with the 2008 version in this volume, they’ll find it’s now a tighter, tougher, darker story, as it always should have been. Shawnee Alley Fire, on the other hand, is as it was in 1987. I hope it speaks to today’s hard times.
After Haunts, I faced the question of whether to try to do a series of Edward Harter mysteries set in Shawnee. Two of my favorite writers—Ed McBain and Arthur Conan Doyle—had done this, with McBain’s 87th Precinct novels and, of course, Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. But others who influenced me, like Dashiell Hammett and James M. Cain, had avoided a series. I’d tried to avoid one too by writing Blind Spring Rambler, an historical mystery set in a 1923 coal town, between the two Shawnee books. Deciding against a third Shawnee novel, I pretty much put mystery writing aside in the early 1990s.
Since then, I’ve made a career of journalism and followed my head. I’m now editor of The Morgan Messenger and my editorials have won awards in a couple states. I’ve written thousands of words about American music and folklore, and I’ve done two books with regional themes. I’ve also written assorted ghost stories and a few other tales, which may be collected in book form one of these days. I haven’t lost any sleep thinking too long or hard about Shawnee and Edward Harter.
Yet people still ask me about getting copies of the two Shawnee books and they still wonder when my new mystery novel will come out. So, to solve the first problem, here are Shawnee Alley Fire and the revised Haunts in one volume. As for when my next detective novel will see light, or if there will ever be another one, who knows? It’s a mystery.
Berkeley Springs, W. Va.
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