A most remarkable year in many respects, 1968 also saw the first book by an American writer to win the Edgar Award for Best Novel in nearly ten years. Donald Westlake’s God Save the Mark prevailed over candidates as strong as Dick Francis’s Flying Finish and – an unique occurrence in the award’s history – two novels by Charlotte Armstrong. All this would be enough to make it a notable book, but there is another reason that is the subject of this post. God Save the Mark is probably the only « pure entertainment » book ever to win the coveted statuette.
Westalke, while better known as the « funny guy » of crime fiction was quite able to get serious and even gloomy when he wanted to, and it’s telling that modern exegetes of his work tend to favour that side of his writing – God Save the Mark these days is far less often discussed than the Parker novels he wrote as Richard Stark, or the later, dark novel now proclaimed to be his masterpiece, The Ax. Those books satisfy every modern criteria for « good » crime writing – they’re serious, they’re bleak and they have « something to say » about society and human nature.
God Save the Mark is none of those things – it’s a comedy mystery that doesn’t take itself or anything else seriously, and says little to nothing about the political and social turmoil in America at the time. Contrast it with the book that would win the following year, Jeffery Hudson’s A Case of Need, a fiery thriller dealing with abortion, a hot (and illegal) topic back then. If recent winners are anything to judge by, Westlake’s book would never win or even be nominated today whereas Hudson/Crichton would probably keep his statuette. Mind you, he at least had « something to say ».
Except that art is not just about saying – it’s also about doing. We’re discussing books, not Mother’s day gifts; the thought is not what which counts, the execution is. It’s not a critic’s job to tell the writer what they should write about and how, but to see how well they carried out their objective, whatever that is. Westlake obviously – fortunately – didn’t want to send a message when he wrote God Save the Mark; all he wanted was to write a fun romp and he succeeded brilliantly – that was enough for the 1968 Edgar committee to give him the prize, that’s enough for me too as it was for Anthony Boucher who included it in his final « Best Mysteries of the Year » column, and it should be enough for you as well. Everyone has a right to prefer books that offer a « ferocious and funny examination of gender and patriarchy and the casual cruelty of adolescence that persists well into adulthood » (sic) but to proclaim that such books are the only ones worthy of serious consideration and awards reflects in my opinion a narrow view of what crime fiction, and literature in general is, can and should be. Henry James despite obvious differences thought Robert Louis Stevenson to be the most significant writer of their time – let us follow his example.