In honor of last week’s Edgar Banquet, I offer up the following bit of history of an organization I love, even if it can be a cruel mistress. This account was cribbed from the website of Mystery Writers of America, but the website’s navigation makes it a little hard to find. There, it looks kind of like a Power Point slide with bullets, a format I have little admiration for (sorry, John), so I’ve rearranged it. Don’t worry, I’ve included a link to the actual MWA page here in case you’d like to have a look at the source, which also includes quite a bit of more recent history. At the bottom of that page there is the following attribution: “MWA offers special thanks to Barry and Angela Zeman who in 2000 prepared the document from which most of these highlights were gleamed. Their more detailed and fascinating account of the organization’s history is available in the MWA archives.” So I’m giving Barry and Angela, whom we all love to distraction—when, oh, when are you coming back, Angela?—all the credit.
by Barry and Angela Zeman
Mystery Writers of America, Inc., was established in 1945 by a dozen or so like-minded mystery writers for the purpose of promoting and protecting the interest and welfare of mystery writers and to increase the esteem and literary recognition given to the genre. The who’s who of 54 writers attending an early organizing meeting included: Howard Haycraft, Erle Stanley Gardener, Dorothy B. Hughes, Anthony Boucher, Rex Stout, Stuart Palmer, the Q. Patrick team, Fred Dannay and Manfred Lee (Ellery Queen), Helen Reilly, Octavus Roy Cohen, Leo Zagat. Roger Torrey, Kurt Steele, and the Lockridges. The writers decided that the slogan of the new organization should be “Crime Does Not Pay – Enough.” Clayton Rawson, who had proposed the catchy slogan, suggested that the organization newsletter be called The Third Degree (TTD). He became TTD’s first editor. Faced with the task of coming up with a mailing list of prospective members, MWA turned to Howard Haycraft’s landmark work, Murder for Pleasure.
With the national headquarters established in New York City, MWA chapters were set up in Chicago and California. The New England Chapter was formed in 1971. Other regional chapters followed as interest in the organization grew. Over the years, eleven regional chapters were established: New York, SoCal, NoCal, Midwest, New England, Rocky Mountain, Southeast, Southwest, Northwest, Florida, and the most recently organized chapter, Mid-Atlantic.
One of the first issues taken up by MWA was rental library sales. As Lawrence Treat recalled, in this era before the mass production of paperback books, “a paperback involved a limited print run . . . and our main sales for our two-dollar books were to rental libraries.” Unfortunately, no matter how many times the book was rented out, the author only received royalties on the single copy sold to the library. At the second MWA meeting, the writers discussed getting “a fair share of the subsidiary rights.” As Lawrence Treat put it, “If we didn’t get rich, we at least expected to get justice.” This concern led the members to suggest that the price of a mystery paperback be raised by fifty cents (from $2.00 to $2.50) and the additional profit split between writer and publisher. MWA developed a model contract which one publisher, Ziff-Davis, signed.
To bolster the organization’s treasury, MWA set up an anthology series. The first anthology, Murder Cavalcade, was published in 1946 by Duell, Sloan, and Pierce. The un-credited editor was Ken Crossen. Richard Lockridge wrote the foreword. Currently, MWA averages about one short-story anthology per year. These themed anthologies are edited by best-selling writers and provide a showcase for MWA members.
In 1945, the coveted Edgar® Award was named in honor of Edgar Allan Poe. Reminiscing about how the Edgar® Award came to be Dorothy B. Hughes recalled: “It was yet another step in dignifying the mystery writer, in enhancing his work, and let’s face crass materialism . . . anything that enhances the author and his work means more money in his pocket” .
To highlight the award, Clayton Rawson came up with another terrific idea – an annual banquet at which the Edgar® for the “Best First Novel” of the year would be given to the winner. At that first banquet in 1946, Watchful at Night, by Julian Fast, received Best First Novel. In addition to the award for Best First Novel, awards were given for Best Motion Picture, Best Radio Drama, and Outstanding Mystery Criticism.
In that first year, Edgar® winners received a special leather-bound edition of Poe made for the occasion by Viking Press. In the second year, the award was a special Limited Edition of 12 copies of Howard Haycraft’s Art of the Mystery Story. The small ceramic statuettes of Poe, designed by Peter Williams, appeared in the third year.
In 1950, the Edgar® for the Best Play was awarded for the first time. A year later, in 1951, the Edgar® for the Best Short Story premiered. In 1952, recognizing an important new medium, the first Edgar® for Best Television Episode was awarded. In 1960, the last Edgar® for the Best Radio Drama was awarded. In 1953, after much debate about whether it was appropriate or even possible to choose one book each year to give such a distinction, a “Best Novel” category was added.1 Of the awards MWA bestows at the Edgar® Awards Dinner, none is more prestigious and coveted than the Grand Master, established in 1954 to recognize not only important contributions to the mystery over time, but a significant output of consistently high quality as well.2
Since its inception, the Edgar® Awards Dinner has taken place in various locales in New York City. From the Henry Hudson Hotel, the festivities moved to the Astor, then the Biltmore, had a brief stay at the Stork Club, and then Toots Shor’s Restaurant. Now held at the Grand Hyatt Hotel, the Edgar® Awards Dinner remains the occasion when mystery writers can “dress to kill.”