Saturday, August 1, 2009

Philly Is Mysterious

By Joseph R. G. de Marco

Admit it! Philly probably doesn’t make your list of vacation destinations. But it should. Of all the reasons you might consider visiting Philadelphia , I’m guessing that mystery and the mysterious don’t come to mind. Cheesesteaks, mummers, the Liberty Bell but not mystery. Right?

As a guy who was born and raised in the city of Brotherly Love , I think it’s a great place with a lot to recommend it to the mystery lover. Which is one reason I chose to set Murder on Camac, the first of my new mystery series, here and why my detective, Marco Fontana, is a native Philadelphian. More on that later.

Philadelphia has always had a rough and tumble reputation. From it’s earliest days, it was a town overflowing with murderous types. More recently, from the Unicorn Killer to the Lex Street massacre, from the South Street Stalker to the Frankford Slasher, Philly continues adding to its criminally mysterious reputation. This burg has also done it’s bit to keep criminals locked up. Eastern State Penitentiary, opened in 1829, over the years housed such dastardly masterminds as Al Capone and Willy Sutton. Murderers, thieves, bank robbers, and more are said to haunt the place. You can encounter some of them when you tour the Penitentiary which is now a national monument.

Philly is fertile territory for a mystery writer and we’ve also got the literary pedigree to prove it.

Edgar Allen Poe was at his most productive and inventive when he graced Philadelphia ’s cobblestone streets.

Poe invented the detective story while living in Philly. It was here that he wrote the Murders in the Rue Morgue (credited as the start of modern detective fiction). C. Auguste Dupin, Poe’s creation is thought to be a prototype for Sherlock Holmes. Dupin was invented here in Philly. Poe’s sleuth solved cases creatively using a combination of techniques and appeared in three of Poe’s stories, the Rue Morgue, The Mystery of Marie Rogêt, and The Purloined Letter.

Philadelphia ’s rich traditions of the gothic, of murder, and of the mysterious made an indelible mark on mystery in general. Gothic lit was big in Europe , featuring romance, horror, the supernatural, and plenty of heaving bosoms. In the 18th Century, Philadelphian Charles Brockden Brown, Americanized and urbanized the gothic literary tradition. Others followed. Robert Montgomery Bird did his part and George Lippard wrote The Quaker City, the best selling novel in America for several years in the mid nineteenth century. Lippard’s work featured Philadelphia elites in acts of murder and depravity unmatched.

These Philly traditions were undoubtedly an influence on Poe who took them to a new level right here in the city of cheesesteaks.

We still have plenty of mystery greats living and working here. Lisa Scottoline, a Philadelphia lawyer writes about her protagonist, also a Philadelphia lawyer (go figure). Gillian Roberts features Amanda Pepper, a prep school teacher, who finds herself in one crime ridden situation after another. And there are more.

With all that tradition, how could I not set a mystery series in Philadelphia ?

When the characters of my current series began to take shape in my mind, there was nowhere else they wanted to live but in Philadelphia . Of course, they like to get out of town as I do, but this is home base.

The P.I. in this series is Marco Fontana; like me, he’s an Italian with roots in South Philly which retains a fading touch of Italy . Most of Marco’s family is still there with the exception of a brother or two. But even Marco moved to Philly’s gayborhood in the middle of town.

Marco also owns a troupe of male strippers who keep him busy, get him into trouble, and cause lots of heads to turn.

The first novel in this series is Murder on Camac and, though it has connections to the thirty year old death of a pope in Rome , takes place mostly in Philadelphia ’s center city area. You’ll meet Marco’s love interests Luke and Anton (Marco can’t make up his mind or maybe he doesn’t want to – it’s not an easy choice), his strippers, his secretary Olga, and his sleek and sultry nemesis on the police force, Gina Giuliani.

It’s a story which haunted me for a long time before I began writing it. I’d made lots of notes but it took a while for me to get the whole tale on paper (okay, onto the computer and then on paper). Writing it was fun, even if it was hard work. Watching the characters do what they do fascinated me each day I worked on the book. It's set to be released in August.

Marco is already deep into his next case and he keeps reminding me that I’ve got to get back to the computer to tell his story.

J.R.G. DeMarco lives and writes in Philadelphia and Montréal. Though he concentrates on his own fiction and nonfiction work, he is also actively engaged in other endeavors. Currently the Editor of Mysterical-E (, he has written for a number of publications including The Advocate, In Touch, Gaysweek, PGN, The New York Native, GCN, The Philadelphia Inquirer, KLIATT, and Chroma, to name a few. His work has been anthologized in the Quickies series (Arsenal Pulp Press), in Men Seeking Men (Painted Leaf Press), Gay Life (Doubleday), Hey Paisan! (Guernica),We Are Everywhere (Routledge), BlackMen WhiteMen (Gay Sunshine), Men's Lives (Macmillan), Paws and Reflect (Alyson), Charmed Lives (Lethe), The International Encyclopedia of Marriage and Family (Macmillan); the Encyclopedia of Men and Masculinites (ABC CLIO) and others.

One of his greatest loves is mystery (all kinds) and he is currently working on the next installment of his Marco Fontana series as well as developing a second series. He also has an abiding interest in alternate history, speculative fiction, young adult fiction, vampires, werewolves, science fiction, the supernatural, mythology, and more. He is editing two anthologies and working on an alternate history series. His first published novel, a mystery, Murder on Camac, will be released in August 2009, for more information go to


  1. Hi, Joseph,

    Allow me to extend a hearty welcome to the Grip!

    I don't know Philadelphia, but I agree that the gritty old cities of the U.S. make great settings for mysteries--and for erotica. My thriller Exposure is set in Pittsburgh, where I went to graduate school. Like Philly (I gather) it is rich in history and ethnicity -- definitely not a sanitized modern town.

    Your book sounds like great fun! I wish you lots of luck with it.


  2. Hi Joseph,

    You make Philly sound like Gracelands for mystery writers. Wonderful post.

    Good luck with Murder on Camac - and the rest of the series.

    Best wishes,

    Ashley Lister

  3. Time to put Brotherly Love in it's place...I was in Philly in the 60s and everyone said NYC was bad but you never knew what goes into Philly Cheeseburger...Though I ain't saying anything, my lips are I lost my appetite after that ;)))

  4. "You’ll meet Marco’s love interests Luke and Anton (Marco can’t make up his mind or maybe he doesn’t want to – it’s not an easy choice)"

    Such a shame to have to make him choose, Joseph. Cut the guy a break. Can't you swing it to where Marco gets his cake (Anton) and eats it too (Luke)? Just a thought ;)

    Great words on Philly. I have close friends from there with similar feelings of the place.

    Good luck with Murder on Camac.


  5. Dayum, I feel like I should run get a ticket to Philly right now. Great post, Joseph and thank you for sharing some of the history and bits from your newest book.


  6. I haven't been to Philly in years, but I miss it. It may not be others' idea of a vacation destination, but for me, there are a lot of fond memories there.

    Good to see you here!

  7. Thanks for the lovely post, Joe. We're very pleased to have you join us at the Grip today!

  8. Thanks for this opportunity. This is a great blog and I'm quite happy to have the chance to post something.

    Bryl -- I see how you think now! But Anton would never have that kind of a deal. He's an all or nothing kind of guy.

    If anyone does visit Philly, I'd be glad to act as tour guide.

  9. Welcome to the grip!

    I was in Philidelphia under very odd circumstances in 1976. There seemed a lot of racial tension between Itaians and black folks but I've heard things are much better now. I was very impressed with the place. I'd like to see it again some day.

    I've heard that W.C Fields gravestone has carved on it:

    "I'd rather be here than Philly."

    Wonder what the deal is with that . . .


  10. I grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs and went to college in the city. It's still one of my favorite places to visit. Thanks for illuminating more of its criminal past!


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