In my imagination, mystery novelists spend long days writing in T-shirts and jeans (or maybe their underwear) pounding out the stories that keep the rest of us reading late into the night. But last Thursday, they waltzed into Manhattan’s Grand Hyatt Hotel in sharp-creased black tie and glittering gowns.
Harlan Coben looked right at home in a perfectly tailored tuxedo. Laura Lippman dazzled in a shimmering golden sheath. Tim Hallinan squirmed uncomfortably in his monkey suit, his black bowtie askew.
Heads turned as an elegant grand dame floated in. She was encased in a figure-hugging black dress that exposed one ivory shoulder. I managed not to wolf whistle.
“Who is that?” my daughter Melanie asked.
The Mystery Writers of America’s 65th Annual Edgar Allan Poe Awards Banquet began with an intimate cocktail party for the nominees and their guests; and the head-turner, Sara Paretsky, had come to claim her due—the Grand Master Award for lifetime achievement.
(See MWA's complete list of 2011 Edgar nominees and winners here.)
I was there with Melanie and my teenage granddaughter, Mikaila, because my book, Rogue Island, was one of five nominees in the best first novel category. As a former journalist, I was accustomed to being around famous people, but on this night I was star-struck. I swigged two flutes of champagne to steady my nerves.
Coben, Lippman, Steve Hamilton, Lisa Scottoline, and other familiar names from book jackets wandered over to offer good wishes. Some of them even hugged me. I said “good luck” to the four other nominees in my category—and told Paul Doiron that I liked his book, The Poacher’s Son, best.
My daughter was eager to meet David Morrell, the creator of Rambo. “I’ll find him for you,” I said, not realizing he was standing behind me.
“I’m right here,” he said with a chuckle, and graciously posed for a photograph with Melanie.
As we flowed into the ballroom for dinner, my great friend Thomas H. Cook, one of the best writers I’ve ever read, slid over to give me a hug. For months, he’d been jokingly threatening to murder me if I made the best seller lists.
“If you win tonight,” he said, “I’ll f@*&ing kill you.”
“I can’t believe how nice everyone is,” Melanie said as we settled into our seats. It was something I’d remarked on many times since I started socializing with mystery writers a few years ago. I’d been to dozens of book release parties and mystery writers’ conferences, and never once had I detected a hint of the jealousy and backbiting I’d seen among writers of other genres.
After suffering through many a dreary banquet over the years, dinner was a welcome surprise—an excellent meal of mushroom bisque, filet mignon, fresh vegetables, and a chocolate-rich desert—served as the always charming, and frequently hilarious, Scottoline, the incoming MWA president, gave a welcoming speech that had everyone laughing.
After the plates were cleared away, the award winners were announced with great fanfare. Hamilton walked away with the biggest prize, the best-novel Edgar, for The Lock Artist.
Coben, who presented the Edgar for best paperback original, began by rattling off a list of famous names including Ed McBain, Elmore Leonard and himself, and then added that four more writers were about to join the list of writers who had been nominated in the category—and lost.
When it was time for the best first novel category, I leaned back in my chair and waited for Paul Doiron’s name to be called. Then again, maybe it would be James Thompson, or Nic Pizzolatto, or David Gordon. They’d all written marvelous books.
Instead, my name was called. My daughter shrieked and turned to hug me as I sat there with my mouth hanging open.
I’ve done a lot of public speaking, sometimes to crowds twice this size, and always felt at ease. But as I walked across the stage to accept the Edgar from S.J. Rozan and Michael -freaking- Connelly, my legs weren’t working properly. I turned to the audience, let out a sigh, and said “Wow!”
“Congratulations to the other nominees,” I said. “I have no idea why I am standing here instead of you.” That part came out all right, but I stammered through the next 60 seconds.
The names of mystery writers who had offered me advice and encouragement over the last year flew through my head: Lawrence Block, Alafair Burke, Dennis Lehane, Joseph Finder, and three dozen more. I wanted to thank them all by name, but I’d been told to limit my acceptance speech to a minute. I thanked my brilliant agent, Susanna Einstein, her boss Lawrence Kirshbaum, and the great folks at my publishing house, Tom Doherty Associates; but my voice shook, and I mangled some of the names.
I thanked my friend Otto Penzler, the dean of New York City crime fiction editors, who had encouraged me to go back to the novel after I had abandoned it. “Otto,” I said, “rightly calls himself the Godfather of Rogue Island.”
And I thanked the late, great Evan Hunter, aka Ed McBain. Some years ago, he had sent me a note praising a story I had written for a newspaper and suggesting it could be the outline for a novel. “If he hadn’t taken the time to do that,” I said, “I would not be standing here tonight.”
Lastly I thanked my wife, the poet Patricia Smith, for editing every line that I write. “And thank you, baby,” I said, “for showing me how to create credible love scenes, both on the page and off.”
As I turned from the lecturn, Connelly and Rozan stepped forward to shake my hand. I thanked Connelly for writing a book-jacket blurb that praised my novel. Rozan confided that she thought I was the oldest person ever to win the Edgar for best first novel.
Yeah, I thought. Probably by decades.
Back at our table, Mikaila was babbling excitedly into her cell phone.
At the other end of it, my wife, who had to miss the event because of another commitment, couldn’t decipher the rush words but got the gist.
“Are you f@#*ing kidding?” she screeched, and then immediately apologized to her giggling granddaughter for the profanity.
When it was over, everyone mingled for a bit, accepting and conveying congratulations. Mikaila picked up one of the four-by-four-inch plaques with Poe’s image that had been left at each place setting and discovered it was made of white chocolate. Melanie gathered up several that people had left behind and took them home to her two daughters.
Mikaila and I wanted to go to Otto’s after-party, but instead we headed for Penn Station and the long train ride home. It was, after all, a school night.