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Authors placed Tarpon on imagination's map

This is a city of spoken-word traditions and handed-down memories.

But there is another, silent side, hidden away in the shelves of the library, in the back room of the historical society and in the attics of private homes. It is found in the books written about the city or set here. And often, city lore becomes the stuff of literary license.

"Tarpon Springs is a great setting to write about," said Community Affairs Administrator Kathleen Monahan. "It has great things to write about and nice areas to write in."

Monahan has compiled a list of books written about or using Tarpon Springs. Some are fiction, some are historical and one is notorious. The books date as far back as 1913 and include historical guides to the sponge industry, children's books about sponge diving, and romance and suspense novels.

"When I was a reference librarian, I noticed books on Tarpon Springs," Monahan said. "Just one book after another. It seemed unusual to me that a small city had so many novels written about it."

Ray Hinst, co-owner of Haslam's Bookstore in St. Petersburg, said that for a time, Tarpon Springs was fashionable with the literati. National magazines like National Geographic and others were focusing on the city.

"It was voguish in the '50s, as a setting for both movies and novels," Hinst said. "But Florida has a great background for fiction because of its native diversity."

And it was this diversity that has appeared to be the focus of many of the books written about the city. Most focused on the sponge diving industry and the Greek community.

With 25 books and a slew of articles and short stories to its credit, could Tarpon Springs be called the literary capital of Tampa Bay? Monahan wouldn't go that far. But she believed that there is something about the city that makes it worth the write.

"It's always had this kind of mystique around it because of the sponge industry and its diversity," Monahan said. "The whole idea of the sponge diver as hero. And the unusual attracts writers."

The most recent novel about the city is by Ocala-based writer Carol Keith. Her book, A Watch for Evil, hinges on two Greek sailors who were burned to death in a Cedar Key jail by bigoted police officers. The incident is based on the case of three Greek sponge divers who were found stabbed and burned in a jail cell at Cedar Key in 1931. Two local police officials were later arrested and convicted of killing them.

Keith described herself as a "proud native Tarponite" who wanted to write about what she had known.

Some well-known writers have set their books in Tarpon Springs. Alistair MacLean, author of numerous thrillers including Ice Station Zebra, Where Eagles Dare and The Guns of Navarone, wrote a novel about the city in 1961, called Fear Is the Key. Scott O'Dell, who has written teen fiction including Island of the Blue Dolphins, penned a story of a female sponge diver called Alexandra in 1984.

But perhaps the city's most famous author in residence never wrote a word about Tarpon Springs. Lois Lenski, who wrote young-adult fiction about children from various socioeconomic classes, lived in the city for 25 years. She wrote numerous books, including Cowboy Small, Mr. and Mrs. Noah and Sing a Song of People.

The closest she came to mentioning Tarpon Springs was writing a book set in Plant City called Strawberry Girl. She donated a collection of her books to the Tarpon Springs Historical Society, where they are on display.

But there is one book about Tarpon Springs that some people wish never had been written.

In 1934, Margaret Bernice Lund published perhaps what has become the most infamous novel about the city, Portrait of Eden, a steamy story of adultery, alcoholism and abortion set in a fictitious small Southern town. The plot turns on the murder of a doctor on the steps of a local hospital.

Many of the characters were based on actual people who lived in Tarpon Springs, and those who recognized themselves were not amused.

The murder was real, too. In 1931, health officer Archie McCallister was shot to death on the steps of the hospital. His murder was never solved.

Lund had lived in the city for a short time while penning the novel. Former Mayor Tom Craig, 93, remembered Lund as a nice woman, who "hung around the soda shops listening to the gossip." Everyone knew she was working on a book, he said.

"And she put a lot of scandal into that book," Craig said. "I think the general public was tickled to death . . . because it was talking about people we knew about. Everyone in Tarpon Springs bought it and passed it on."

In a book on Tarpon's history, author Gertrude K. Stoughton called Lund's novel a "malicious mishmash of gossip and innuendo."

The book itself has become the subject of a spoken lore. The book was printed only once. Legend has it that a group of prominent city families pooled their money and bought the copyright. Today, the book is difficult to come by, with few people willing to admit they own it. Craig recalled one friend who refused to let him see the book for years.

"She said it was so secret; she didn't want me to look at it," he said.

Tarpon's public library has a copy, but it is kept under close supervision and isn't allowed to leave the building, said reference librarian Marilyn Aidy.

"It's a precious book," she said, "that tends to disappear very quickly."

Books on file

The following books set in Tarpon Springs are on file in its library. Articles and newspapers about the city's history also are available.

A Watch for Evil, by Carol Keith.

Acts of Love, by Elia Kazan.

Alexandra, by Scott O'Dell.

Deep Treasure, by Charles Minor Blackford.

Fear Is the Key, by Alistair MacLean.

Full Fathom Five, by Kamal Ahmad.

Palmetto Springs, by Paul Hackett.

Strangers at Ithaca, the story of Spongers of Tarpon Springs, by George T. Frantzis.

Tarpon Springs Sketch Book, by local artist Michel G. Emmanuel.

The Tarpon Springs Story by Gertrude K. Stoughton.

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