Ellis Peters probably didn’t know she was making history the day she won the Edgar for her 1962 novel Death and the Joyful Woman. She was the first author to win Best Novel for a whodunit. She was also the last – this feat has never been replicated to date, and is unlikely to ever be in the near future. It is an open secret in the crime fiction community that the Edgars don’t like traditional mysteries and demonstrate this year after year as the genre’s major stars are either snobbed or, when lucky enough to secure a nomination, lose to some « edgier » crime novel.
Louise Penny is a case in point. Despite being for years a perennial critical favourite and huge seller and having won almost every award on the circuit, she has yet to add a Poe statuette to her collection. She was nominated only once, and predictably lost to William Kent Krueger’s coming-of-age story Ordinary Grace. Conversely, P.D. James never managed to win a single statuette out of five nominations, whereas her more « cutting-edge » colleague and friend Ruth Rendell won three times. Of all the major crime writers who never won a competitive Edgar, a significant portion are found in the traditional mystery genre.
The Grand Master Award occasionally redresses the balance – but only occasionnally and one guesses mostly to placate critics. Last year’s exceptional crowning of three major figures in the genre – the late Jane Langton, William Link and the way overdue Peter Lovesey – coincided with an almost complete domination of noir over the main categories. Tellingly, Anthony Horowitz’s postmodern take on the Golden Age whodunit, The Magpie Murders, wasn’t even nominated despite being one of that year’s best reviewed mysteries.
Why so much disdain even in the face of obvious quality and/or originality? Part of the answer lies in the fact that the Best Novel award appeared at a time when whodunits were seen as largely a thing of the past, and committed from the start to « progressive » crime fiction – the kind of books that push the envelope and have a claim to genuine « literary » value. The initial choice of Charlotte Jay’s Beat Not the Bones was very much a declaration of intent, and the rest of the first decade continued that trend. Things became more mixed afterwards, especially when thrillers entered the ring but the hostility to « formula » crime fiction remained, and it’s worth pointing out that P.I. novels, while extremely popular with the general public, got and still get a bad rap too, and that standalones greatly outnumber series instalments among winners.
This bias against traditional mysteries, as unjust as it is, wouldn’t be much of a concern – after all, the Oscars’ well documented antipathy towards comedies, crime flicks and westerns didn’t keep them from flourishing – if it didn’t testify to the low esteem in which the genre keeps being held by the crime fiction elites. That traditional mysteries don’t always deal with serious issues and – the horror! – primarily aim to entertain doesn’t mean they can’t be taken seriously. Also this bias doesn’t necessarily translate into better and more (thematically) diverse winners – every Best Novel or so of the last decade seems to be set in the Midwest or the South, with a child as the main protagonist or someone « going back to their roots » and facing the shadows of their past. Surely a whodunit, even of the most standard kind, would add some much needed variety.