Judging for the Edgars Best Novel Award

By Brian Thiem

A year ago, author pal Susan Breen told me she had been asked by Mystery Writers of America to chair the Edgars Best Novel selection committee and asked me to be one of the seven committee members.

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Although I’m a newbie in the mystery writing world, I’ve been familiar with the Edgars Awards for some time. The Edgars are the most prestigious awards for mystery authors. When the nominations come out every year, I head to the library and local bookstore to grab copies of the books that Mystery Writers of America has determined to be the best. And like most mystery authors, I dream that one of my books might someday make the list.

Being asked to be part of the process was a true honor, so, not fully comprehending the enormity of the task, I agreed.

The books started trickling in. Brand new hardcover novels shipped directly from the publishers. Books written by my favorite authors. Authors I’d never previously read but always wanted to. Traditional mysteries, thrillers, procedurals. All mine to keep. It was like Christmas every day.Edgar Books 4

I started reading.

Then more books arrived. I’d get home in the evening and find several boxes of books on the porch. I’d watch the UPS guy and postal carrier plodding up my driveway carrying heavy boxes, obviously hating my decision to join the committee. In no time at all, my home office had piles of books on the coffee table and more on the floor. Soon, stacks twenty-books high covered an entire wall. I emptied half the shelves on my four bookcases to make space. But that wasn’t enough.

Susan had warned us the previous year’s Best Novel committee received more than 500 books, and we needed to find our own system to plow through the books and come up with our committee’s five nominees. It became obvious that even if I did nothing but eat, sleep, and read for the next year, I couldn’t possibly read 500 books beginning to end.

I remembered the semester in my MFA program when I interned with literary agent extraordinaire Paula Munier and was assigned her electronic “slush pile” sent by authors who dreamed of landing an agent. I quickly learned to read for “rejection.” As calloused as it sounds, I was searching for a great book by a great writer, and anything less, I had to reject.

I began doing the same with the Best Novel submissions. But it was tough. All the books came from traditional publishers who had qualified for MWA’s approved publishers list. The authors had already made the cut by attracting an agent. Their agents thought their books were great enough to pitch to publishers. The publishing houses thought the books were great enough to send out to the world and be profitable, even after the advances they paid out and the costs of editing, publishing, and marketing. All the books I received were worthy.

Many evenings, I sat in my office and stared at the twenty or more books sitting on my coffee table. Sometimes, I would read the first few pages, acknowledge it was a good book but not a winner, and put it aside. I’d read three chapters of others and think, “maybe,” setting it aside to read more. And some I read to the end over the next few days. Some of those made my list. I began whittling down the pile. Then the dreaded UPS guy came again.Edgar Books 1

The committee was comprised of avid readers and successful authors: Gray Basnight, Susan Breen, Tracy Clark, Tracee de Hahn, Mary Feliz, and Jeff Soloway. Our backgrounds and writing subgenres were different. We had different opinions about what made a “best” novel. Over the year, we traded hundreds of emails, discussing what we liked and why. We were often passionate in our opinions. But our diversity in background, voices, and beliefs turned out to be our strength.

I had only met a few of the committee members in person before we were selected, but by the end of the year, I felt I had six close friends. They’d share a book they loved, and I sometimes had to pull it from my “no” pile and give it another look. I’d tell them why I like a particular book. We’d sometimes argue over—I mean discuss—the merits of different books, but it never got personal, and I learned more about writing from this group than I thought possible.

We’re all sworn to secrecy about the inner workings of our committee and how we came up with the winners, but I will say, there’s no magic formula to what makes the best novel (or if there is, it still eludes me). If there was, every author could write the next bestseller.

Once we selected our nominees and winner, we all felt like we deserved a celebration. Too bad we lived in different parts of the country. I began boxing up my books. Some of the 540 books I had received I already gave away to friends. About 60 books—those that were not winners, but books I loved them enough to want to finish—remained on my shelves. I delivered the rest to the local library. The branch manager was thrilled. SomeEdgar Books 3 would go into their circulation, others would go to other branch libraries in the county system, and some would be sold by the Friends of the Library to raise money for library programs.

It was an honor to be part of this process. I’m in awe of the talented authors who wrote hundreds of amazing mystery, thriller, and crime novels in 2019. I offer a huge congratulations to the nominees. I’m equally in awe of my fellow committee members. You guys are awesome.

The winner of Best Novel and the other categories will be announced at the Edgars Banquet in New York on April 30.

 

The Great Divide

Ever stop to think about what it is that divides us? I’ve been thinking about this for some time now. Trying to decide if I had anything worth saying on the topic, or even if I could put my thoughts into words in such a way that I didn’t inadvertently widen the chasm.

As a police officer I’ve seen more than my share of hate and violence. Watched people do and say horrific things to each other. Witnessed families torn apart by abuse, both the domestic and substance variety. Sometimes both.

I’ve seen the ugliness of death and the ache of despair. I watched people publicly champion a cause and then turn a blind eye to those in need. It’s the human condition. None of us are immune from its hypocrisy.

Back in 2012, after nearly three decades as a cop, I made the decision to get out. Being a cop and witnessing the worst humanity had to offer day in and day out took a toll, as it does on every first responder. Quite honestly I was tired. Tired of other people and the way they treated each other. Tired of trying to make a positive difference in their lives, and never quite feeling that I had.

Hanging up my gun and badge was cathartic, and it worked for a while. My focus changed, along with my experiences. It was nice to spend time with people who weren’t drunk, or bloodied, or crazed. No longer was there a need for me to act as referee while adults, acting as children, attempted to inflict physical harm on one another over differences of opinion.

Lately however I feel as if I’ve traveled back in time. I’ve gotten repeated glimpses into the ugliness of human nature. Social media has become a place to strike out at others who disagree with our points of view, on literally every single topic. If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. You’re either with us or against us. Sound familiar?

I’ve heard others express the same feelings of lament over these interactions, then go about their business as if they played no part in it. People I look up to and consider friends have written and said things to and about others that I would never think about writing or saying.

I submit to you that we all play a part in it. The way we treat others, the way we respond. Has the need to be right, at all costs, become more important than the need for compassion? Is it possible that the very people we are condemning have had vastly different life experiences from our own? Perhaps we could actually learn from one another instead of shutting each other out, blocking, or unfriending. I shake my head each time I see that word used. When I was growing up we never had need of such a word as unfriending. Oh, you could be “on the outs” with someone, but that was really only a temporary status. You could be pissed at someone but still be their friend. Maybe it’s because there was more to earning friendship than clicking accept in an electronic box.

Have we become so cold-hearted and distant as a society that we can no longer be bothered to take the time to make real and lasting friendships?

I’ve watched fellow writers struggle with a bad review or writer’s block, and I’ve felt for them. We all know how difficult it is to invest so much of ourselves and our feelings into the books we write. But then I’ve looked on in amazement as these same people piled on when another writer had some “undeserved success”, or garnered some “undeserved accolade”, or crossed some imagined “territorial boundary”. I don’t pretend to know what any of my fellow writers have been through in their lives, but I know that we all have stories in need of telling. And I will defend the right to tell those stories. 

Perhaps the way in which we, as a society, can begin to heal is through reflection. Before we post another provocative tweet, or share some inflammatory meme, or say something we will later regret, maybe we should pause and ask ourselves is this really necessary? Would I say this if the person was standing right in front of me? Am I part of the problem?

Are you like me? Are you tired of what the world has become? Would you like to have a more positive outlook on life? Ask yourself what you can do, or not do, today that will brighten someone else’s day. Perhaps we would all do well to heed Otis’s advice and try a little tenderness. Let’s start with that.

An Unwashed Stain

               I had intended, this month, to use my small space to discuss a topic outside of famous trials from history. I had planned an essay which explored the craft of writing. Then, I saw that I was scheduled to drop this blog on Super Bowl Sunday. Was a discussion of craft really called for, I wondered, as the nation settled itself into sofas and recliners for hours of beer ads and a costumed J-Lo, with football occasionally interspersed? I decided not. I’ve set that topic aside for another month.

            In January 2000, the St. Louis Rams defeated the Tennessee Titans before a Super Bowl crowd in Atlanta’s Georgia Dome. Linebacker Mike Jones tackled Kevin Dyson one yard short of the End Zone as time expired. The fans in Atlanta and those watching on television had witnessed one of the greatest Super Bowl games ever played. Shortly afterwards, however, the conversation turned not to the game but to allegations of murder involving one of the NFL’s premier players, linebacker Ray Lewis of the Baltimore Ravens.

            In the late 90’s, the Buckhead neighborhood had become the place to party in Atlanta. The 1996 Olympics enhanced the city’s reputation. A growing Hip-Hop culture gave the city street-cred. The city relaxed rules for clubs in order to encourage the expansion of nightlife. 100 clubs were estimated to operate within a three block stretch of Buckhead. One of the clubs in January 2000 was the Cobalt Lounge.

            Ray Lewis and a group of friends, including Reginald Oakley and Joseph Sweeting, attended a Super Bowl party there following the game. Upon leaving Cobalt around 4:00 AM, they got into an argument with another group. Fueled by rage and alcohol, a fight ensued. Oakley and Sweeting brawled against other men, including Jacinth Baker and Richard Lollar. Lewis, dressed in a cream-colored suit and Stetson, stayed by his rented limo.

            The fight resulted in the stabbing and death of Baker and Lollar. Lewis’ limo carried Oakley and Sweeting among others away from the crime scene. Lewis told the limo’s occupants to keep quiet about what had taken place.  

            Subsequently, Oakley, Sweeting and Lewis were all arrested. The police located blood inside the limo. Authorities never recovered the white suit Lewis wore that night. Prosecutors originally charged Lewis with two counts of murder. He struck a deal, mid-trial, to plead to a misdemeanor charge of obstruction of justice in exchange for his testimony against Oakley and Sweeting. Although he testified that the other two men bought knives in an Atlanta sporting goods store the previous day, he never directly linked them to the murder.

            Trials seek to take a dynamic event and to explain it sequentially. Alcohol and emotion interfere with these retellings. The prosecution’s case, hampered by inconsistencies, could not be salvaged by flipping the celebrity co-defendant. The jury, finding self-defense, acquitted Oakley and Sweeting of murder after three hours of deliberation. Ray Lewis, to this point is the only person convicted of anything in connection with the twin killings.

            Questions persist about how much Lewis knew concerning what transpired in the hours surrounding the deaths, and whether he withheld information which might have led to justice. He has always maintained that he had no part in the crimes. The blood in the limo, the missing suit, and the demands for silence may suggest something different.

            “I’m not trying to end my career like this,” Lewis said, according to another passenger of the limo. He didn’t. Lewis received one year of probation. The NFL fined him $250,000. Lewis played 13 more seasons and was renowned for his defensive leadership. In his NFL Hall of Fame induction speech he referred to 1999-2001 as “some of the darkest moments of his life” and thanked the Ravens coaches and owner for helping him through it.

            About 20 miles north of the NFL Hall of Fame are the graves for Baker and Lollar.

            Last week’s passing of Kobe Bryant has forced us again to consider how fans reconcile the complicated legacy of famous athletes. Like the complex characters of good literature, we struggle to balance athletic greatness, community service and the unwashable stain of a moment. 

            Ray Lewis’ career will always be marked with the phrase, “yes, but”.

Mark Thielman

The Novel Coronavirus – What's It All About?

Hello all!

Ben Keller here with my latest contribution to the Murder-Books.com blog. Normally we here try to write about how our past career experiences inform our writing of authentic crime fiction. But considering the recent concerns around the Novel Coronavirus, and my role as an international security consultant, I thought I would share some of the latest developments and some grounded, basic advice and analysis. Please note that I am not a doctor, nor do I play one on TV. Please consult your own healthcare provider with any medical concerns.

So what’s the deal? Near the end of December 2019, the government in Wuhan in China announced a cluster of cases of pneumonia. The cluster seemed to be associated with the South China Seafood Wholesale Market, but no cause had yet been identified.


On January 8 of this year, a new virus was discovered, named the “2019-novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV).” Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses, some of which can infect people. Some only cause the common cold, others can have more serious, even fatal, impact. Previous examples were the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). The “novel” in this virus’ name simply means that it is a newly identified virus.


In this case, the majority of the confirmed cases are centered around Wuhan, but other cases have been exported to other countries. The initial transmission appears to have been from animal to human, but human-to-human transmission has been confirmed.
As of the time of this writing on January 27, here are the numbers:
Global total: 2797 cases
Mainland China: 2744 cases, 80 deaths
Beyond Mainland China: 53 cases

Other countries with confirmed cases: Australia, Canada, France, Japan, Malaysia, Nepal, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand, United States, Vietnam

So who’s at risk? Human-to-human transmission has been confirmed, but it is not yet known how easily or sustainably it spreads. This is a rapidly developing situation, so the extent and nature of the risk is not yet fully understood. Most people infected so far have been in or through Wuhan. Some of the initial cases reported visiting seafood/animal markets, a potential source of exposure. As with all such illnesses, those with underlying medical conditions, compromised immune systems, and the elderly would have the greatest risk if exposed.


So far there is no specific treatment, and a vaccine could take months – or years – to develop. Patients have had a wide range of response, from mild illness to death. The best measure is prevention. A few basic precautions include:
• Avoid direct contact with animals, alive or dead. Do not touch surfaces that may be contaminated with droppings.
• Keep your distance from people who are obviously sick.
• Maintain good personal hygiene. Wash your hands frequently and employ hand sanitizer periodically. Avoid touching your face.
• Ensure food is thoroughly cooked.
• Don’t travel if you’re sick.

Speaking of travel, international travelers should expect delays. Several world airports have implemented mandatory health screening, but these are primarily directed for flights arriving from China. Some parts of Asia have made wearing surgical masks mandatory.

What’s the outlook? The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) advised on January 22 that further global spread of this virus is “likely,” with a high probability that the outbreak will spread to other countries in Asia (as these have the greatest volume of people traveling to and from Wuhan, China.) They assess it moderately likely that the virus will spread to countries in the European Union (EU), Iceland, Liechtenstein, and Norway. The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention assessed the immediate health risk in the United States as “low” as of January 22.

I hope you’ve found this overview helpful. As I frequently tell my consultees, I don’t want people to walk around trembling in fear, but to have an accurate understanding of the risks they take. Ensure reasonable precautions, then go live your life. I wish you all good health and safe travels!

-Ben Keller

But it's a DRY Heat!

by Isabella Maldonado

Completely unprepared for living in an arid climate, I moved to the Phoenix area several years ago. My knowledge of the desert came from watching Wil E. Coyote chase the roadrunner around rocks and dunes as a child. Before moving here, I had spent a week at a dude ranch in Wickenburg, and figured everyone in Arizona had a horse and wore a cowboy hat.

The thermometer already registered over a hundred degrees when I arrived at Sky Harbor Airport in May. I knew I was in for trouble when I burned my fingers trying to buckle the seat belt when I got in the car. This was after I scorched the backs of my legs on the car seat.

After settling in, I noticed that the humidity usually hovered around four percent. Sometimes even two percent. Coming from a climate (Washington, DC) where the humidity was routinely between 70 and 90 percent in the summer, I was amazed. It’s definitely more pleasant to feel a dry heat, but there are limits.

As one of my new friends, a lifelong Phoenician (yes, they DO call themselves that) told me, “Anything over 110 degrees is just nasty no matter what the humidity is.” Hot is hot. I talked to other transplants and asked if they ever acclimate. Most say they eventually do, but then admit to hiding indoors from sunup to sundown from June through the end of August.

Phoenix skyline at dusk

Despite the heat, and my disappointment that I was not issued a horse and a Stetson upon arrival, I’ve come to love Phoenix. The desert has a beauty all its own, the downtown area is new and vibrant compared to buildings back East, the food is fantastic and the people are friendly. In the summer, total strangers will offer you cold bottled water as a matter of form. Shops and office buildings frequently provide bottled water to visitors as well. It’s almost as if there is an understanding that we are all in this together, because getting caught out in the midday heat can be deadly. The desert climate has evoked hospitality from a bygone era.

Of course, the bonus is that I get to chuckle when my friends from back East tell me how much snow they’re shoveling in January. I snap a selfie wearing a tank top and attach it to a text: I’VE GOT AN EMPTY GUEST ROOM. There may or may not be a prickly pear margarita in my hand…

Tirade No. 2: The Tyranny of the New Year’s Resolution

by Roger Johns

In my last post for the blog, Nothin’ But Net: A Modest (Holiday) Proposal, I took aim at the practice of giving cash as a gift. Having gotten that pet peeve off my chest, relatively unscathed, I am now emboldened to take on yet another venerated cultural phenomenon of the season: The New Year’s Resolution. I am fully aware of the recent trend away from making resolutions, so I don’t pretend to have set this bandwagon in motion, only to being a jumper-on, but, having jumped on, I here to say my piece on the subject.

                First, I have resolved to view the decline of the resolution, not as a sign of the collapse of civilization, but as the inevitable recognition of the fact that recently discovered alternatives to the resolution are worth taking a look at. For the title of ‘Best Alternative’, I nominate the New Year’s Aspiration, because aspirations are much more open ended than resolutions.

                Resolutions, to use a fifty-cent word, are too dichotomous. With resolutions, it’s either this or that, win or lose, succeed or fail. Having spent the better part of a lifetime falling victim to this cruel duality, it’s time to admit that the dichotomy has lost its charm as a motivator of self-improvement. The more forgiving (and, to my mind, far more encouraging) aspiration, is the way to go, because aspirations are really declarations of hope. They make room for the possibility of having to start over without having to admit failure. Someone wise, maybe it was Yoda, once said, “Do or do not. There is no try.” Hmmm. Maybe. If the fate of the Rebellion is at stake, then the dichotomous sentiment of such an all-or-nothing admonition sounds perfectly appropriate. Plus, it rolls off the tongue a lot more smoothly than “Aspire or aspire not . . .” But for an everyday, ordinary Joe, like me, with only a teensy fraction of my self-esteem at stake, the kinder, gentler “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again,” with its implicit message of hope that a future score is not entirely out of the question, hits infinitely closer to the mark. And even though there are those among us who contend that hope is not a strategy, I’m okay with that. Hope has the power to uplift, something strategy seems just a bit too functional and dry to achieve.

                Besides, dichotomies seem better suited for the young. For example, the well-meaning, but clearly dichotomous, words of encouragement ‘If you fall off the horse, pick yourself up and get back on,’ offer only two possibilities––being off the horse or being on the horse––and contains the unspoken assumption that the one doing the falling is young enough to actually get back on. At my age, if I fall off the horse, I will call 9-1-1 and pray that the hip replacement is successful. And pray further that my insurance company doesn’t force me to sue the horse under the belief that I fell only because the horse failed to act the way a reasonable equine, in similar circumstances, should have acted.

                No, I think it’s best to avoid the negativity inherent in the seemingly innocent practice of making New Year’s resolutions, so I invite you all to join with me in setting your sights on a few well-chosen aspirations instead. There is strength in numbers, so we might succeed in elevating the aspiration to its rightful place.

Note: Yes, I’m aware that I’ve now used the word ‘tyranny’ in two consecutive blog posts (this is called an “echo” in the writing business, and is considered a failure of imagination [or, at least, a lackadaisical approach to editing]) but I am disinclined to bow to the tyranny of the conventions of copyediting, because that’s just too dichotomous. Besides, I like the word.

Roger Johns, is the award-winning author of the Wallace Hartman Mysteries.

Police Pursuits: The Thrill of the Chase

I’ll admit it. I like to drive fast — and as an officer, if certain conditions were met, I could legally flick on my lights and siren and disregard the rules of the road. After all, it’s nearly impossible to catch violators without exceeding the speed limit. But it was a calculated risk. While I was exempt from the vehicle code statutes, at no time was I relieved of my duty to drive in a safe manner and with due regard to the safety of others.  

In the police academy, we had about 80 hours of vehicle operation instruction. Driving was considered a critical task: fail driving, fail the academy. (For the curious, firearms and defensive tactics rounded out the critical trifecta.) The coursework included precision driving, routine vehicle operation, and high-speed pursuit driving — all to prepare us for our duties as officers. On patrol, we were more likely to collide with objects while parking or at slow speed than at higher speeds, but for every mile of increased speed, the possibility of catastrophic injury or damage increased as well.

The flashing lights of a police car.

My academy was on the grounds of a decommissioned air base that had been repurposed. As cadets, we practiced our driving skills on unused runways. For most of us, it was the first time we’d driven a patrol car, and the academy cars were outfitted with all the standard radios and gear, plus they were modified to include full roll cages and 5-point safety harnesses. During high-speed exercises, we wore helmets.

The precision driving course was a cone course where cadets had to maneuver the car through various parking, tight turns, and reverse driving patterns. Routine patrol operations included using the radio while driving and patrolling techniques — which was really all about not becoming so distracted that you drove into a wall, or curb, or that sweet little elderly man crossing legally in the sidewalk. 

Decision making was fun. With an instructor in the passenger seat, the cadet had to drive into the bottom of the Y shaped cone pattern at various speeds. At the last second the instructor would yell right or left. The goal was to react quickly enough to end up in the appropriate lane. A lot of cones gave their lives during the exercise but every cadet learned that the faster their speed, the less time they had to react to outside demands. 

One of the most enjoyable exercises took place after the fire department came in and soaped the runways. While driving, friction is your friend. It keeps the wheels of your vehicle in contact with the road. Mix static friction, rolling friction, torque, soap, and giddy cadets together and you’ve got all the ingredients for a great course on skid management and braking. It was probably the closest we came to playing during the academy.

As much fun as it was let loose on a skid pan, my favorite class was pursuit driving. The cone course was massive. Instructors sat in the passenger seats, and during the initial passes, coached the drivers through curves and corners, advising when to brake, when to accelerate, and how to use the straight-aways. After a couple of spins, a suspect vehicle entered the course — and the chase was on. 

For the uninitiated, pursuit driving is a lot like playing tag — only ideally without the contact. It is easy for new officers to get tunnel vision, and cops must fight the mindset that catching the suspect is always the ultimate goal. It’s not. Maintaining public safety is. On the street, pursuit driving is an ongoing exercise in risk management. In the academy, it was our first and last opportunity to chase another car without the weight of liability. On that runway, we killed cones, spun out of control, lost our suspects. We also learned how to carve corners, push our limits, and control our emotions. 

I really didn’t think much about our instructors’ role in the passenger seat until I became a field training officer. Few things are scarier than sitting next to a trainee on their first code-three run. A couple of them wrapped the mic cord around the steering column because in their excitement, they forgot to put it back on the stand. That first pursuit is sensation overload: the roar of the engine, the smell of brakes, a blaring siren, red and blue lights bouncing outside the windows, the taste of adrenaline. Experience helps cops manage the overload, but it never stops being exciting.

My academy training made me a safer driver. It taught me to look beyond the hood of my car and assess my surroundings for hazards. It revealed the limits of my ability. It demonstrated that cars have limits, too, and that the quality of tires really does matter. Lights and sirens may give an officer the right of way, but they don’t add a magical layer of protection around the car. And it’s always better to arrive safely at one’s destination than crash along the way.

Happy New Year!

Micki Browning