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.
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.
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.
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. Some 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.