The Mystery Writers of America (MWA) hosted its annual Edgar Allan Poe Awards Banquet on April 26th at what’s become its favorite venue, New York’s Grand Hyatt Hotel. The award is named for “the father of the detective story” and this year marks the 209th anniversary of his birth. The ceremony honors the best in mystery fiction, non-fiction—biographies and true crime—and television published and produced in 2017. The much coveted prize among the attendees—anybody and everybody connected to the world of writing crime fiction—is a stylized ceramic bust of the author who wears his years well. The theme of the event: The whydunnit. From Inspiration to Publication: Why we love mysteries. A question that, unsurprisingly, has as many answers as the number of people in the audience.
As usual, the evening began with a cocktail party followed by a dinner whose highlight has always been the white chocolate Poes. Inexplicably, they were missing from this year’s menu. Their absence was deeply mourned amid some ribald theories of their nonappearance. The post-prandial part of the festivities began with a welcome by Jeffrey Deaver, the President of MWA and the evening’s emcee. He seemed quite robust (he collapsed last year and required emergency treatment and in subtle deference to this a chair was placed by the lectern).
As part of his presentation, he paid homage to the late great Grand Master Sue Grafton, who died this year. His tribute to her alphabet-themed Kinsey Millhone books was a poem which opened with “A is for advance, which we pray to get back.”
One of the first presenters was Mary Higgins Clark who delighted the audience with the story of an adoring fan before bestowing her eponymous award. It seems she was cornered by a woman at a recent event who spent a fair amount of time gushing over her work. Her parting words: “I can’t wait to tell my friends that I’ve actually met Danielle Steel.” Her award went to Carol Goodman for her novel The Widow’s House.
The most prestigious award is the Grand Master, established in 1954 to recognize important contributions to the genre, as well as significant output of consistent high quality. The first recipient was Dame Agatha Christie. William Link was one of three to be honored this year as MWA Grand Master along with Jane Langton and Peter Lovesey. Link’s acceptance speech included a long and moving tribute to Levinson who is obviously still very much “with” him (Levinson died in 1987). Among the critically lauded shows they created for television were “Murder She Wrote,” starring Angela Lansbury, and “Columbo,” featuring the peerless Peter Falk. Link revealed an intriguing tidbit about Columbo, namely that the first choice for the character by the producers was Bing Crosby. The millions of fans of the show, myself among them, give thanks that Crosby turned it down.
Peter Falk was also a part of Peter Lovesey’s speech. Lovesey, a complete charmer like the characters in his novels, gave a long and amusing account of his work Wobble to Death being optioned over and over again by Carl Foreman, who kept saying “It won’t be long.” Words he died by. The film was never made. Falk was among those interested and at the end of a long lunch with Lovesey actually remarked, “There’s just one more thing…”
Many in the audience were rooting for Philip Kerr’s Prussian Blue to win posthumously for Best Novel after his untimely death earlier this year. The award went to African-American author Attica Locke for her novel Bluebird, Bluebird (Mulholland). It features a black Texas Ranger as its protagonist. In Locke’s remarks, she expressed the hope that mystery novels such as hers could help readers understand how people should “navigate shared space.” Which taken in a larger, universal context was a fitting message to wrap up the evening.
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.