Crime Pays for Writers Who Win a Coveted Edgar Award

Article excerpt

When National Geographic sends its photographers on location, it's usually to film scenes of wildebeest sweeping across the Serengeti or capture the ancient ceremonies of Trobriand islanders. So it was surprising to find them on a warm spring evening in the ballroom of the New York Hilton, there to record the events at the annual gathering of the Mystery Writers of America, or MWA.

Ib be sure, mystery writers can be as exotic as Trobriand islanders, with strange and obscure rituals of their own. In this base, they had gathered in Manhattan to bestow the MWA's prestigious Edgar Allen Poe Awards, more popularly known simply as the Edgars.

Generally speaking, mystery writers are united only in their suspicion of agents and publishers and their mutual fondness for alcohol. Otherwise, they tend to specialize. Some (mainly women) concentrate on "cozies" (wherein the fairly sanitized murders must be puzzled out in civilized surroundings), while others (mainly men) knock out hard-boiled detective yarns. There is a group of mystery writers who call themselves Malice Domestic and another known as Sisters in Crime.

Whatever their predilections, few myster writers would dispute the importance of the Edgars. Virtually every mystery writer of note -- including Agatha Christie, Walter Mosley and Mickey Spillane -- has won an Edgar sometime during the half-century since the fbunding of the MWA. The Edgar ceremony also gives mystery writers an excuse to celebrate the choke hold their genre has on American readers. A survey by Publishers Weekly, a trade journal, found that nine of the top 30 best-selling hardcover novels in 1995 could be classified either as mysteries or thrillers. The No. 1 novel, with nearly 2.5 million copies sold, was John Grisham's The Rainmaker Others on the list included Sue Grafton, Patricia Cornwell, Mary Higgins Clark (with two titles to her credit) and Dick Francis.

If any writer could be considered the star of this year's Edgars, it would be Dick Francis, named Grand Master -- an honor conferred on authors who have made a substantial contribution to the genre. Francis also walked away with the Edgar for best novel, Come to Grief England's most famous jockey -- he broke no less than 22 bones (and his nose five times) during the course of his riding career -- he accepted his awards with grace and wit: As a boy I had an ambition to win the Grand National," said Francis, recalling a race in 1956 when his horse -- owned by the Queen Mother - became spooked by the cheering crowd and collapsed just before the finish line. …