Edgar Week: The Seventies

If "Rule Britannia" was the humiliating motto of the previous decade, "America is back" might be that of the one we examine today - though the simpler "Action!" might fit just well, too.

The Seventies are marked on one hand by the spectacular comeback of American writers and on the other by the ubiquitousness of thrillers in all guises and stripes. Voters in those days liked their books to be rife with guns, gangs, chases, kidnappings, assassinations, spies, transfuges and the ilk. As a result, very few of the period's laureates are proper mysteries even in the broadest sense - and bestowing an award for the best mystery novel of the year on Brian Garfield's Hopscotch certainly requires a very broad conception of the genre. Another side-effect of this thriller-craze is that major authors who debuted, came to proeminence or penned their best works during this period, but didn't specialize in the boom-bang-a-bang vein, went ignored. Some got their belated due in the following decades while others stayed empty-handed or had to content themselves with consolation prizes.

One might get an impression from what precedes that Edgar winners of the Seventies are all disposable Cold-War actioners. It would be wrong. First because, as I said, some of them are "real" mysteries, if not always of the traditional sort: Sjöwall & Wahlöö's The Laughing Policeman, Tony Hillerman's Dance Hall of the Dead and Robert B. Parker's Promised Land, the first P.I. novel since Ellin's The Eighth Circle two decades before to win the precious ceramic bust. As to the proper thrillers, at least two have become classics: Frederick Forsyth's The Day of the Jackal and Ken Follett's The Eye of the Needle, while the others remain eminently readable if sometimes a little dated, a frequent trapping of the genre. The problem with this period is not one of quality. It's one of ambition.

Edgar voters of this otherwise stormy decade are much more conservative than their predecessors: only the crowning of Sjöwall & Wahlöö may be considered a (relatively) risky move. Other winners are well-crafted (and often commercially successful) pieces of storytelling but their eventual attempts at innovation are shallow and inoffensive: Dance Hall of the Dead's originality rests almost entirely on its setting and characters, and Spenser brings nothing really new to the Shamus figure.

Would the Eighties confirm this trend, or would they mark a return to first principles? Stay tuned.

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