Meeting of mystery minds

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I wasn't just entertained by the "Meeting of Minds XVIII" production at Centuries & Sleuths, I was inspired. The panel of resurrected historical figures included America's preeminent mystery writers, Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammet, as well as a female pioneer in the genre, Craig Rice.

As Hammet, Brendan Riley cut a dashing figure, wearing a gray suit and black moustache. The author of The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man used his deadpan manner to deliver some of the evening's best lines.

Chandler, portrayed by John Cline, looked suitably dissipated, holding his glass of "whiskey" and sucking on his trademark pipe. When he wasn't displaying his cynical wit, he spoke warmly of his "buddy" Philip Marlowe, who made him a lot of money.

Carol Hauswald, swathed in fur, was as zany as her screwball characters. The first detective writer to make the cover of Time magazine claimed she needed a drink in hand while she drove because "sober driving makes me nervous."

"Alcohol," in the form of convincing-looking tea, flowed throughout the performance. The three acknowledged alcoholics even shared swigs from a hip flask.

The interplay was so seamless, the audience didn't know how much time and effort had gone into these impersonations. The cast had been working on their characters for eight months. It took that long to complete their research and become comfortable in their historic skin. Eventually, they were relaxed enough to banter with their colleagues.

I had been involved in several of these productions and recall one of the actors drove his wife crazy because she felt like she was living with Oscar Wilde for six months.

Besides my admiration for the actors, I wanted to see Chandler, my favorite mystery writer. Like his fellow panelists, Chandler had a troubled childhood. (I could relate to that.) He didn't start writing detective fiction until he was 44. (I waited even longer.) Most importantly, he believed the private detective should be an untarnished hero: a common man of honor who's relatively poor. Otherwise, he wouldn't be a detective. (Just like my character.)

Hammet was also an inspirational presence. He was the only panelist who had actually been a private detective. He started writing hardboiled novels because the detective stories he'd read didn't reflect the realities of the job. (This had also been my motivation.) I didn't identify as closely with Craig Rice, though we may be distant relatives.

Proprietor Augie Aleksy should be applauded for putting on these painstaking productions. The authors certainly appreciated it. Hammet, whose favorite activity was "liquid loafing," hoisted his glass and declared, "Forest Park's my kind of town." When asked how they looked so well-preserved after decades in the grave, he quipped, "We're pickled."

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