I go through this every year when I receive my Agatha Awards nomination ballot prior to the Malice Domestic mystery convention. What should I put on it? Short stories are easy enough to choose, but I’m always bewildered about the kind of books that do and don’t fit the Agatha Award criteria.
The task became more difficult last year when historical mysteries were placed in a separate category. So: if I think a historical mystery was one of the best books of the year, will it be removed from my ballot if I place it in the Best Novel category instead of Best Historical?
Decisions, decisions. The completed ballot is due no later than Saturday.
I could fill up the ballot with books by friends. Some of my friends write some of the books I consider best. But not all are that good. I want to nominate books I genuinely believe rose above the competition. Without having read everything that was published during the year, I can only choose from those I did read, and that always makes me wonder what marvelous work I've missed.
I have three sure candidates for the nonfiction category. First is The Grand Tour: Around the World with the Queen of Mystery, a collection of Agatha Christie’s travel letters edited by her grandson, Mathew Prichard. Second is More Forensics and Fiction: Crime Writers' Morbidly Curious Questions Expertly Answered by D.P. Lyle, MD. The third is Books to Die For: The World's Greatest Mystery Writers on the World's Greatest Mystery Novels, edited by John Connolly and Declan Burke. (The latter two books were nominated for Edgar Awards. The Christie book, inexplicably, was not, and it will be an outright crime if Christie's own words don't earn an Agatha nomination.) Those are the only nonfiction crime-related books from 2012 that I am both familiar with and consider award-worthy, so I will only list the three on my ballot.
The novel nominations are the ones that drive me a little batty, not only because I know so many talented authors but also because the Agatha guidelines don’t explain what a “traditional” mystery is, beyond specifying that it is best exemplified by Agatha Christie’s books and has no explicit sex or excessive violence. However, some books that have been nominated – and won – have borne little resemblance to Christie mysteries. I don’t think my first novel, The Heat of the Moon, is anything like a Christie book, and it has a sex scene, but no, I won’t give back my teapot.
I always consider Margaret Maron’s latest book, whatever it is, one of the best mysteries of the year, so The Buzzard Table from 2012 is guaranteed a spot on my ballot. I don’t read many cozies, but I read Written in Stone by Ellery Adams and loved it, and it's a strong candidate for my Best Novel nominations list. Another is Racing from Death by Sasscer Hill, who received some nominations (including the Agatha) for her first novel, Full Mortality, but still isn't getting the attention she deserves. And I mustn't forget G.M. Malliet’s A Fatal Winter, an English village mystery in the Christie mold that is more beautifully written than anything Christie herself ever produced. I’ll put my own 2012 book, Bleeding Through, on my ballot because, after all, doesn’t every author write in his or her own title? I’m guaranteed at least one mention.
I haven’t read many historical mysteries lately, and most I've read have been gritty and violent, so I don’t have a lot to choose from. Joanna Campbell Slan’s Jane Eyre novel Death of a Schoolgirl is a shoo-in, though. Jeri Westerson’s books featuring a disgraced knight as a private detective are billed as “medieval noir,” but last year her 2011 book, Troubled Bones, received an Agatha nomination, so I guess it’s permissible to put Blood Lance from 2012 on my ballot. Anatomy of Murder by Imogen Robertson and The Anatomist’s Wife by Anna Lee Huber are already on it. But I hesitate over including The Orphan Master by Jean Zimmerman, however highly I regard it, because a foray into cannibalism might push the Agatha boundaries.
Best First Novel? Oy. Here’s where I feel a strong impulse to simply write in the titles of five friends’ books – whether I’ve read them yet or not. I’ll try to resist, but I won’t tell you what my ultimate choices are.
Children’s and Young Adult mysteries are foreign territory for me, and I’ll leave that category blank. This is a category where I suspect a small number of voters determine the nominees and winner.
|Deserving of a teapot!|
Three of my favorite 2012 crime novels are Criminal by Karin Slaughter, Dare Me by Megan Abbott, and The Gods of Gotham (historical) by Lyndsay Faye. But I’ll save them for my Anthony Award nomination ballot when it arrives. I don’t think they fit the Agatha Award definition of traditional mysteries.
I may be wrong.
And I am not the only one who doesn’t know exactly what a traditional mystery is. Ask a dozen people for a definition and you’ll get some interestingly varied answers. Some people think "cozy" and "traditional" are interchangeable terms. Some think all traditional mysteries take place in small towns, or have amateur sleuths.
As I said, if Christie’s books provide the form, some novels that deviate from it have been nominated and have won. If explicit sex and excessive violence are the only forbidden elements, a lot of suspense novels and thrillers could be relabeled traditional mysteries, but if a publishing house is putting a lot of effort and advertising money into branding a book a thriller, I won't argue with the labeling.
Maybe you don’t care about awards, but if you do, you want to know which books are eligible for which honors. Do you think we need a clearer definition, for award purposes, of the traditional mystery?