01/05/2009

Edgar Week: The Nineties

This decade is an oddity in Edgar history as it continues the previous one instead of repudiating it. As we browse the list of the winners, we find the same trends, the same demographics and in some cases the same people as in the Eighties.
 
The most remarkable event of the decade is the massive presence of female writers, especially American female writers. Julie Smith becomes the first local to win since Charlotte Armstrong thirty-four years before and the mid-decade sees three women (Margaret Maron, Minette Walters, Mary Willis Walker) winning in a row. The Fifties may be proportionally the most female-friendly decade in the history of the award, but the Nineties come close second. The following decade, however and in true Edgar fashion, would be another setback for the fairer sex.
 
Some choices in the previous decade had suggested Edgar voters were in love again with books that "push the envelope" after two decades of ignoring them. The Nineties confirm this as well as reveal a slight change in the meaning of "pushing the envelope". Edgar voters in the Fifties were seeking books which expanded the boundaries of the genre by offering deeper characterization, tackling unfamiliar subjects, experimenting or revisiting its conventions. Their successors on the other hand are interested in works that transcend the genre and look like "serious" literature. This new approach accounts for winners of this decade being comparatively more earnest and displaying greater "awareness" than their predecessors and found its logical outcome with the crowning of a mainstream novel with only formal connections to the genre, Mr. White's Confession by Robert Clark.
 
"No Country For Young Men" was a tempting title for the Eighties; so it is with respect to the Nineties. Dick Francis in 1996 not only breaks his own record by winning a historic third award, but he also sets another one: at 76, he is the oldest winner ever*. While no other laureate of the decade is that old, at least four of them are quinquagenarians and none to my knowledge** is under 40. Also in keeping with the Eighties, some winners are actually multiple winners: Francis of course, but also Lawrence Block who had won for Best Short Story in 1985 and went to score twice more in that category in 1994 and 1998, and of course James Lee Burke whose Cimarron Rose made him the second author to win the Best Novel Award more than just once.  All but three (Walters, Walker and Clark) of the laureates had been around for at least one decade, Block being the one with the longest career, and only two are of foreign origin.
 
Finally, series are as popular in the Nineties as they were in the Eighties: only three books not featuring or introducing a recurring character. Which changes would the next century bring (or not)? We'll see that tomorrow in the sixth and final episode of this series.
 
   * He is also the only author to have won both Best Novel and Grandmaster in the same night, and Sid Halley to date is the only series character to appear in two Best Novel winners.
** The dates of birth of some authors are unknown or at least not available on the World Wide Web.

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