The 70th Annual Edgar Awards
Mystery Writers of America (MWA) hosted its 70th Annual Edgar Allan Poe Awards Banquet on April 28th at its customary venue in New York’s Grand Hyatt hotel. The award is named for the American short story writer, poet and critic widely considered “the father of the detective story.” This year is the 207th anniversary of Edgar Allan Poe’s birth. The ceremony honors the best in mystery and crime fiction, non-fiction and television published and produced in 2015. In 1946, when the first Edgar Awards dinner was held, the winners got a specially produced leather-bound edition of Poe’s stories. In the second year, the prize was a special limited edition of Howard Haycraft’s Art of the Mystery Story. The current prize, the small ceramic bust of Poe designed by Peter Williams, first appeared in 1948.
A cocktail party was followed by a sumptuous dinner. As always, the white chocolate Poes were the hit of the meal. The awards portion began with Sara Paretsky turning over the President’s mantle to Jeff Abbott. He’s one of the best thriller writers around, whose popular series features CIA agent Sam Capra. Abbott got a collective empathetic murmur when he bemoaned the fact that he had a deadline looming and begged the crowd’s indulgence if he pulled out his laptop at some point in the proceedings.
Paretsky, the author of eighteen books featuring her acclaimed detective V.I. Warshawski, is also the founder of the advocacy group, Sisters in Crime (SinC). That group received one of the two Raven Awards. The Raven was established in 1953 to recognize “non-writers and institutions that have made significant contributions to our genre or to MWA.” SinC was formed in 1986 by Paretsky, after Phyllis Whitney had written MWA to complain that women authors weren’t being nominated for Edgars. MWA executive v-p Donna Andrews, in her column for the 70th anniversary annual, candidly observed that SinC “might not even exist if MWA had been doing more for woman crime writers thirty years ago.” The other Raven went to Margaret Kinsman, an international authority on contemporary crime fiction, particularly women writers.
A delightful departure from the acceptance speech norm, “I want to thank my agent, spouse, MWA, publisher, beloved pet…,” came from Allen Kurzweil. His Whipping Boy: The Forty Year Search for My Twelve-Year-Old Bully (Harper) won Best Fact Crime. It’s a memoir of his victimization by a roommate while attending boarding school. He thanked his childhood bully for tying him up and whipping him to the soundtrack of Jesus Christ, Superstar.
The most prestigious and coveted award is the Grand Master. This award was established in 1954 to recognize important contributions to the mystery over time, as well as a significant output of consistent high quality. The first recipient was Dame Agatha Christie. This year history was made when MWA named its first African-American Grand Master, Walter Mosley.
It was especially significant after the Oscars brouhaha over lack of diversity two months ago. Mosley is the author of more than fifty books, most notably the Easy Rawlins series. Mosley was acclaimed by the presenter of the honor, his close friend and the publisher of Black Classic books, Paul Coates, for having created crime fiction’s most successful black hero in Watts PI Rawlins. Mosley gave a gracious, low key speech titled “Acceptance,” which combined nostalgia with humor.
The Edgar for Best First Novel By An American Author went to The Sympathizer (Grove Press) by Viet Thanh Nguyen – another first as it had just won this year’s Pulitzer prize. Nguyen, who was unable to attend, was born in Vietnam and raised in America. He is the cultural critic-at-large for the Los Angeles Times. The Sympathizer is an exploration of identity politics in America. It’s at once, a powerful story of love and friendship, and a gripping espionage novel.
More kudos for Sisters in Crime: their treasurer Lori Roy took home the Best Novel Edgar. Her novel Let Me Die in His Footsteps (Penguin Random House-Dutton) is a dark and complex Southern Gothic of family feuds, forbidden loves, and wronged innocents. Roy is the only woman to have won both best first novel and best novel Edgars and only the third person to have ever done so. (The others are Ross Thomas and Steve Hamilton). It was a fitting end to a night of many firsts.
Irma Heldman is a veteran publishing executive and book reviewer with a penchant for mysteries. One of her favorite gigs was her magazine column “On the Docket” under the pseudonym O. L. Bailey.