Sunday, April 29, 2012

One Hit Wonders and the Edgar Award (TM)

Reds are pleased to welcome Ben LeRoy, Publisher of Tyrus Books and, previously Bleak House Books. Ben has long been a standard bearer of the history of our genre, whether of the noirish, or more traditional mystery bent. It is a privilege to welcome him today. Without further adieu...

On April 26th, the Mystery Writers of America announced the winners of the prestigious Edgar Allan Poe Awards across a variety of categories including Best Novel, Best Short Story, Best Episode of a TV Series, and Best First Novel in the mystery world.

The Edgar Awards have been given out since the mid-40s, though some categories weren’t handed out until later or handed out irregularly. As is the case with any award’s history, there are many familiar names. Stalwarts like Raymond Chandler, John le Carre, Donald Westlake, Dick Francis, Tony Hillerman, Robert B. Parker, Ken Follett, James Lee Burke, and Lawrence Block have won the Edgar Award for Best Novel. The bibliographies of these authors are common knowledge among fans of crime fiction.

But what about some of the other names on the list? What became of the winners who didn’t produce a string of best-selling books and whose names are lost to history to all but the most knowledgeable fans of crime and mystery fiction?

I’m particularly curious about those writers whose careers started off on a high note—winning the Edgar Award for Best First Novel. Notable winners include, James Patterson (1977, The Thomas Berryman Number) and Michael Connelly (1993, The Black Echo). In these instances, perhaps in part because of the attention the win brought to them, those authors have gone onto phenomenally successful careers that have made them household names to even casual readers not interested in mystery fiction.

But what about Julius Fast, the winner of the first ever Edgar Award for Best First Novel in 1946 for his novel Watchful at Night? Fast went on to write a few more crime novels, but then spent the better part of his career writing non-fiction medical works. The first woman to win the Best First Novel was Helen Eustis for her work, The Horizontal Man (1947). Eustis wrote one more novel, The Fool Killer, and a collection of short stories. Is Eustis a name familiar to crime fiction readers today?

Nearly sixty years ago, in 1953, William Campbell Gault’s novel Don’t Cry for Me won the Edgar Award for Best First Novel. Don’t Cry for Me is the story of Pete Worden, the black sheep of a well-to-do family in California. Pete claims his only strengths lay in football and the military, and in an attempt to find honest work—and therefore inherit his portion of his father’s estate—he finds himself tangled up with a crime boss who’s got a finger in every unsavory pie in town. Two dead bodies show up in Pete’s apartment building in rapid succession, and he teams up with a police detective to clear his name and bring down the big man, Nick Arnold.

How does it compare to this year’s crop of nominees? Were there things—innovative at Gault’s time—that have become the eye roll inducing clich├ęs that sometimes earn the genre a bad rap? I started Prologue Books with a particular interest in the evolution of the crime fiction family tree, knowing there was an almost inexhaustible collection of authors I’d never read or even heard of that have leaned heavy in the course of my own life. Now that the hard work of curating the first batch of titles has finally bore fruit, I’m excited to find the answers, and hope others will join in the pursuit, too.

From April 29 – May 5th, Prologue Books will be giving away Don’t Cry for Me for free in the Amazon Kindle and Barnes and Noble NOOK stores. Later in May, Prologue will sponsor a book club to discuss the differences and similarities in crime fiction as represented by Don’t Cry for Me and more contemporary novels, including this year’s Edgar Award winner for Best First Novel.



  1. Just back home from Malice to find this--and it's such a fascinating question! Why do some first-timers go on to fame and forture..and others just fade? And what are we missing when that happens?

    And how fantastic to bring back a first-timer--and reintroduce them to mystery fans. Brilliant. Because once good, always good.. right? And certainly instructive.

    I was honored and privileged (and intimidated!) to moderate the panel of best-first nominees at the Edgar symposium this week--and must say it was the best ever. What range--and what a line up of talent. I bet all five of the nominees are going to be around for a very long time!

    Yay Tyrus! ANd thank you. ANd thank you, Ben, for being such a good friend of the Reds. xoox

  2. Wow - I had no idea William Campbell Gault ever wrote mysteries or won an Edgar. He went on to write a bunch of books that would today be considered YA, with motorsports as a backdrop. I read my way through them all: Dirt Track Summer (my fave), Speedway Challenge, Two-Wheeled Thunder. I loved those books.

  3. How did I miss this post? I checked all night and managed to miss it. Anyway... glad to see it now!

    I loved reading about this history. I often think about this question, not peculiar to Edgar winners, but most stunning seen there!

    Rolling over to Amazon now, to download Don’t Cry for Me. Thanks!