26/04/2009

Edgar Week: The Fifties

Since the first Edgar Award for Best Novel was given in 1954, the Fifties are the shortest decade in this survey. It would be a mistake, however, to underestimate its significance on this sole basis; size isn't everything and we're having yet another proof there.

The fifteen years following World War II were, at least in America, a period of tremendous change and innovation in the mystery field. Authors, breaking free of the largely self-imposed limits and conventions of traditional mystery writing, eagerly ventured into new territories. This "Atomic Renaissance" as Jeffrey Marks called it largely benefited from the rise of a new genre, psychological suspense, whose relative absence of rules left more room for experimentation. Best Novel winners of the decade reflect this state of mind.

The choice of Charlotte Jay's Beat Not the Bones as inaugural laureate almost amounts to a declaration of intent. This oppressive, slow-paced "exotic thriller" (for lack of a better term) closer in mind and tone to Conrad than Christie looked like nothing else in the genre at the time or, for that matter, ever since. The MWA from then on and for the rest of the decade would bestow their top prize on authors who broke new ground and "advanced" mystery fiction either in form or content, or both: Raymond Chandler and Stanley Ellin brought the private eye novel to full maturity, Margaret Millar explored abnormal psyche, Charlotte Armstrong conclusively demonstrated the possibility of writing a suspense novel without any violent death and Ed Lacy gave the world the first convincing African-American private detective.

This progressive approach largely accounts for the extremely high overall quality of the decade's winners, but also had its shortcomings: some books depended so much on the novelty aspect that a great deal of their initial charm went lost as time passed and their audacities became public domain. Millar's Beast in View is a case in point: it is as good as you might expect from the author of How Like an Angel or A Stranger in My Grave and well worth your time, but even the dimmest modern reader is likely to work out the surprise ending halfway through the book. The same is true of Celia Fremlin's suburbian gothic The Hours Before Dawn* which has elicited a sheer number of remakes over the years with a peak in the early nineties, in the wake of the success of The Hand That Rocks The Cradle.

Another feature of post-war mystery fiction reflected by the Edgars is a sociological one: the domination of female authors who from Charlotte Armstrong and Ursula Curtiss to perennial Edgar-loser Patricia Highsmith were responsible for some of the edgier, most original stuff of the moment. The Fifties are arguably if somewhat counter-intuitively the most female-friendly period in all Edgar history; four out of the seven winners of the decade belong to the so-called fairer sex. The same phenomenon is found at the nomination level. Female authors outnumber their male colleagues in 1956 while both 1957 nominees are women. Only in 1958 do men (temporarily) take the advantage. This "Golden Age" of female mystery writing proved to be short-lived, though, and was followed by a long and severe setback as psychological suspense made way for grittier fare... written by men.

Finally, it's worth pointing out that jurors at this stage distinctly favoured standalones rather than series, in keeping with their commitment to "progress" in mystery writing . Only Chandler's The Long Goodbye feature a recurring character (Ed Lacy would revive Room to Swing's Toussaint Moore only once, seven years later)



* The years of reference for this series are those of publication. The Hours Before Dawn, which was published in 1959, is thus included in this article even though it won in 1960.

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