Regular viewers of TV cop shows known that homicide detectives and coroners often refer to their job as speaking for the dead. But true crime authors can claim that same raison d'être, as exemplified in the acceptance speech by the Edgar winner for Best Fact Crime, journalist Robert W. Fieseler. Fieseler won for Tinderbox: The Untold Story of the Up Stairs Lounge Fire and the Rise of Gay Liberation (Norton/Liveright), an investigation into a 1973 arson fire in New Orleans that claimed 32 lives, which was the largest mass killing of gays prior to the 2016 Pulse nightclub massacre. The tragedy and its painful aftermath, which included victims unclaimed by families who felt ashamed of their sexual orientation, and the refusal of proper burials by the Catholic Church because of that orientation, ultimately played a key role in the gay liberation movement. Fieseler, who grew up as a closeted gay man in the MidWest, dedicated his remarks to the 31 men and one woman whose voices were snuffed out by the fatal blaze, and thanked his husband for not divorcing him during the long process of bringing the truth about the Up Stairs Lounge to light.
Fieseler's speech was one of the most powerful moments from last night’s 73rd Edgar Allan Poe Awards Dinner, held by the Mystery Writers of America in Manhattan’s Grand Hyatt Hotel. The issue that was largely avoided last night was the controversy that preceded the banquet, when the MWA withdrew its designation of Linda Fairstein as one of its Grand Masters for 2019. Despite Fairstein’s long track record as a pioneering prosecutor on behalf of victims of sex crimes and domestic violence, the MWA reversed course two days after announcing Fairstein’s honor in November 2018, in the wake of criticism over the choice because of her role in the Central Park Five case. The dispute, which caused a split in MWA ranks, was not referred to at all, and there was no information provided about the revised “procedures for selecting honorary awards in the future” the MWA had announced at the time, so that it could “continue to build a strong and inclusive organization.”
The closest the evening came to possibly addressing the issue was a brief comment by 2016 Grand Master Walter Mosley, who, in accepting the Best Novel Edgar for Down the River Unto the Sea (Hachette Book Group - Mulholland), stated that he was “happy with the direction MWA was taking. The MWA is facing a challenging world, and is changing with that world.”
The very different world of American crime fiction a century ago was the focus of the Best Critical/Biographical Edgar winner, master annotator Leslie S. Klinger’s Classic American Crime Fiction of the 1920s (Pegasus Books); that volume contained five full novels, including Earl Derr Biggers’ House Without A Key, featuring Chinese-American detective Charlie Chan, who was created at a time when racism against that community - and others- was rampant.
Andrew Nurnberg, long-time literary agent for 2019 Grand Master Martin Cruz Smith, regaled the audience with an account of his client’s professional vicissitudes, which included a protest from Smith’s publisher when the author changed the plot of Gorky Park to make Russian detective Arkady Renko the lead.
Other award winners included James A. McLaughlin, author of Bearskin (Ecco), which won best first novel by an American author, and Alison Gaylin, winner of the best paperback original award for If I Die Tonight (William Morrow). To see a full list of the winners, click here.