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‘We the Detectives’ exhibit, performance bring genre to life at Free Library of Philadelphia

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STORY WRITTEN BY LINDA STEIN
lstein@21st-centurymedia.com
@lsteinreporter on Twitter

Philadelphia >> Did you grow up reading “The Hardy Boys” or “Nancy Drew” mysteries? How about watching “Scooby Doo” or reading “Encyclopedia Jones”?
Well, gather your magnifying glass, don your Sherlock Holmes’ deerstalker cap and head to the Free Library of Philadelphia. “We the Detectives” recently opened with two exhibits and an interactive performance sure to delight aficionados of the detective genre.
The exhibit has been about two years in the making, said Karin Suni, curator of the library’s theater collection. She got the idea because the 175th anniversary of the classic Edgar Allan Poe tale “Murders in the Rue Morgue” was last year. The exhibit in the rare books section of the Free Library in Center City includes original pages from “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” written in Poe’s tiny cursive handwriting. That story was the genesis of the entire detective genre, she said.
The “Becoming the Detective” exhibit traces the history of the detective genre, which has spread from books to comic books, radio, film, games and television, pervading much of popular culture. Detective fiction in the 1920s and 1930s used formal rules where authors gave readers clues before revealing “who done it” at the end.
Included are beloved authors ranging from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie to more modern writers such as Walter Mosley and Sue Grafton. Memorabilia from radio shows from the 1920s to 1950s includes “Mystery Theater,” “The Shadow,” and “The Adventures of Sam Spade” and movie posters from classic old movies bring back a bygone era where Humphrey Bogart played Sam Spade in “The Maltese Falcon.”
In the lobby of the library, actors from the New Paradise Laboratories induct participants into “Gumshoe,” an immersive theater experience that takes patrons into the bowels of the library for a unique experience of following clues and secret signals to reveal the answer to a question posed at the start of the adventure. Mysterious “agents” of a “bureau” led the audience through the “fog,” through the stacks and up and down stairs, to the rare book collection and down to the basement. Along the way, the audience writes notes and observations in a small notebook.
“Every agent is a librarian but not every librarian is an agent,” warned one actor.
Meanwhile, over at the Rosenbach Museum, “Clever Criminals and Daring Detectives” continues the theme with a history of the public’s fascination with crime, both real and imaginary, in literature from the 1600s to the 1900s. The displays include the earliest account of an American multiple murderer, the manuscript of the Sherlock Holmes story “The Adventure of the Empty House,” and letters from mystery writer Ellery Queen.

IF YOU GO
“We the Detectives” will run until Sept. 1 and is made possible through a grant from the William Penn Foundation. “Gumshoe” runs until May 7 and free tickets are available at freelibrary.org/detectives.

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