29/04/2009

Edgar Week: The Eighties

The main event of the Seventies had been American writers coming back from an almost decade-long exile. The Eighties confirm that they're back for good, and that Britain's glory days are definetely over: seven of the decade's winners are of local origin, the highest number since the Sixties. A less spectacular yet just as remarkable return is that of female writers, who had all but disappeared during the Seventies, with two women finding their way to the statuette. Both of them, however, are foreign.
 
Stylistically, the decade may be divided into two parts. First half is yet again dominated by thrillers, though of a very different kind than those popular with voters of the Seventies. They tend to be darker, more violent and are definetely not "comfort reads". William Bayer's Peregrine may be the most emblematic book of this period. Second half is more varied, with police procedurals (L.R. Wright's The Suspect and Stuart Kaminsky's A Cold Red Sunrise) a psychological crime novel (Barbara Vine's A Dark-Adapted Eye) a more or less traditional mystery (Aaron Elkins' Old Bones) and the only third P.I. novel to win the award since its creation (James Lee Burke's Black Cherry Blues) That several of these books deal with unusual subjects and/or play relatively loose with the conventions of the genre suggest voters are back to their early "progressive" ways, which the next decade would confirm. The aforementioned A Dark-Adapted Eye is certainly the most ambitious and challenging work to take the award home since, say, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.
 
Other phenomenons worth-noticing as they, too, would persist in the following decade are the comparatively higher age of laureates, and the blossoming of series.
 
Dick Francis was 61 by the time he won a historical second Edgar for Whip Hand* becoming the first sexagenarian winner since Raymond Chandler twenty-five years before. It was a sign of things to come. With seven of them being over 50 at the time of their crowning, Edgar-winning authors of the Eighties are on average markedly older than their predecessors and their careers no surprisingly span a much longer time: Elmore Leonard, the most seasoned of them, started writing in the Fifties. Forty-six-year-old L.R. Wright is the only writer in the decade to win for a debut.
 
Some post-war critics thought series were a thing of the past, a purely commercial device that kept the genre from achieving real artistic grandeur by trapping it into formula. Standalones, they said, were the format best suited to mature mystery fiction. Edgar voters agreed - to an extent. Books introducing series were ok since they set formulas rather than just following them; those being part of series, on the other hand, were to be taken cautiously. The Sixties had been rather series-friendly with five winners introducing or featuring recurring characters, while the Seventies had heavily favored standalones. The Eighties are the first decade where series are clearly dominant: only three books (La Brava, Briarpatch and A Dark-Adapted Eye) are proper standalones. The rest either begins (Peregrine, Billinsgate Shoal, The Suspect) or continue (Whip Hand, Old Bones, A Cold Red Sunrise, Black Cherry Blues) a series.
 
* While Francis was the first and, until 1998, the only author to have won the Best Novel Award more than once, he was not the only laureate of this decade to already own a specimen of the ceramic bust. Both Ross Thomas and Ruth Rendell had already won Edgars in other categories, respectively Best First Novel in 1967 and Best Short Story in 1975 and 1985.

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