Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Staring at that empty ballot

by Sandra Parshall

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?


Jeffrey Marks said...

Sandra, 2 more non-fiction titles in the traditional mystery category. 1st is Blood Relations, which is a collection of correspondence between the 2 cousins who wrote as Ellery Queen. Excellent book.

The 2nd is Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery, which is about 3 forgotten British mystery writers between WWI and WWII.

Both are recommended.

Sheila Connolly said...

I feel your pain, Sandy, as I stare at my blank ballot. It becomes harder when you know a lot of writers, and you find yourself thinking, "she really could use a boost" even when the book is not terrific, or "her writing has improved so much over the past year." Or when you feel you have to set aside outstanding books because the writers have won six times before, and shouldn't somebody else have a chance?

I freely admit I don't read much historical fiction or non-fiction pertaining to mysteries, so I'm really at a loss in those categories, but at the same time, it hurts me to leave a nomination line blank. And I hesitate to nominate a book I haven't read, even though colleagues I respect have recommended it.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Please don't brush off the short story category! I'm crossing my fingers and hoping folks won't forget my "Shifting Is for the Goyim" (Untreed Reads). I don't fret about what is or isn't in the Agatha category, and I think everyone knows I believe that traditionals are different from cozies--in the direct line of descent from Dorothy L. Sayers rather than Agatha Christie, but nonetheless Agatha-worthy. What I hope is that people aren't nominating books and stories they haven't read! It's fine for reader-driven awards to go to popular authors, as long as their popularity is actually due to their work.

Susan M. Boyer said...

Sandy, I feel your pain as well, and this is my first Malice, so my first Agatha ballot. :)

I have no idea if this is right or not, but in my mind, if the book is about solving a puzzle involving a crime (usually murder)and the main character's primary purpose in the story is to solve the puzzle, (and there's no excessive "on screen" violence or sex) then it's a traditional mystery. The main character can be (in my opinion) either an amateur or a professional of some type.

I've always thought of a cozy as being one kind of traditional mystery.

And, I've always thought of thrillers as books where the main character is not so much solving a puzzle as running from and trying to outwit the bad guys. There's always a sense of a clock ticking when I read a book I think of as a thriller.

But, I do see that many books I consider traditional mysteries now also have elements of a thriller, and are being marketed as thrillers.

Sandra Parshall said...

Liz, I'm not brushing off the short story category. I'll have five candidates on my ballot. They're a lot easier to choose than novels -- or nonfiction. I'm sure the two books Jeff named are wonderful, but I've never even seen a copy of either, much less read them. I have the Christie letters collection and I think it gives marvelous insights into the personality and life, and often the work, of one of the most widely read female authors who ever lived.

I've read only a handful of first novels from 2012, and most were too violent to be Agatha material.

Leslie Budewitz said...

Tis a toughy, isn't it? My biggest problem is I just can't read enough new books every year to feel comfortable with the nomination process. And now you've all gone and named even more books I haven't read and want to!

But as the very happy owner of one of those teapots, I do love awards! And thanks again to Liz for a terrific photo -- it's on our library shelf, and I smile every time I see it!

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

This year I'll have my spiffy new iPad at Malice, so if any of my friends wins a teapot, I can take an even more bangup picture. :)

Sandra Parshall said...

I've just realized that The Anatomist's Wife is a first novel, and I've moved it from my Best Historical list to my Best First list. Lovely book. I recommend it.

Rick Helms said...

For once, I have a mystery novel out that isn't overtly violent, and there's not a moment of sex anywhere in it. Kind of hoping someone will consider putting THE UNRESOLVED SEVENTH (Five Star), featuring my forensic psychologist with Asperger's Syndrome, Ben Long, up for an Agatha.

Man. Me wishing for an Agatha mention. Feels really strange...

Kathleen Ernst said...

Excellent post! I sometimes think I'm the only one who struggles with the nomination form. I wish the wording was "Best Contemporary Novel" and "Best Historical Novel," because the current language seems to suggest that historicals are a slightly lesser form. I hope that changes...

Sandra Parshall said...

I was a little thrown when they separated out historicals, Kathleen, because so many historical mysteries are traditional (as far as I can tell, anyway!). I would hate to think that a wonderful historical might miss out on winning for Best Novel.

Sasscer Hill said...

Great post, Sandy. I too struggle with the ballot, but had no trouble listing Bleeding Through in the Best First section on my copy. Of course, I listed Racing from Death too, I'd be lying if I said I didn't. Fingers crossed and wishing us luck! See you at Malice.

Sandra Parshall said...

Sasscer, I hope you meant Best Novel, not Best First. :-)

Linda Rodriguez said...

Sandra, thanks so much for the lovely mention!

And I agree that you shouldn't give your teapot back. :-) I would still classify your novels as "traditional." I think that the focus is really on the fair-play mystery plot and no EXCESSIVE violence on the page or EXPLICIT sex on the page. I capitalized those adjectives because I think they're key.

And I love the historical mystery category. It helps with the dread choosing-between problem. Now, I can list Jeri Westerson and Rhys Bowen there, leaving two more spots on my best novel list to go with BLEEDING THROUGH, THE BUZZARD TABLE, and A FATAL WINTER.