Crime Writing and the Grandmaster

Going to go a little inside baseball on this topic, but when something wakes me up in the middle of the night, I know it’s something I need to write about. And since I have no facility at all for the short forms of Twitter and other social media, the blog gets lucky. Maybe.

In November, the Mystery Writers of America (MWA) announced it was awarding its Grandmaster Award, one of its more prestigious honors, to Linda Fairstein, who used to work in the Manhattan district attorney’s office. As head of the Sex Crimes Unit there, Fairstein led the case of five black teenagers accused of raping a white woman in Central Park in 1989. In fact, Fairstein was accused of helping to secure false confessions that suppported the prosecution’s case. The Central Park Five served years in prison before their convictions were vacated by DNA evidence and the confession of the actual rapist.

After the announcement, crime writer Attica Locke, whose Bluebird, Bluebird won the 2018 Edgar award for Best Novel (an award also administered by the MWA), tweeted the following:

As a member and 2018 Edgar winner, I am begging you to reconsider having Linda Fairstein serve as a Grand Master in next year’s awards ceremony. She is almost singlehandedly responsible for the wrongful incarceration of the Central Park Five.

See the full tweet thread here.

Two days later, Mystery Writers of America withdrew the award, saying that it had been unaware of Fairstein’s role in the Central Park Five case. End of story? Not hardly.

In a somewhat delayed reaction to the controversy, several well-known members of the crime writing community took the MWA to task for its reaction. Otto Penzler, owner of the Mysterious Bookshop in New York City, called the retraction “cowardly and reprehensible” and withdrew his invitation to a party at the bookshop for the incoming MWA board, saying they were no longer welcome there. See his full letter here.

Sounds like a reaction worthy of our petulant President? Penzler’s staff at the bookstore repudiated his ranting letter thus:

Nelson deMille, a long-time writer of thrillers, weighed in as well. His main argument seems to be (I haven’t seen his entire letter) that the MWA board should have known Fairstein was involved with the case since it was so widely reported and that the whole thing was, essentially, a case of political correctness run amok.

I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of hearing people blame political correctness for their personal inability to recognize that there are more skin colors in the world than one, more genders than two, and so on and so on. Mr. deMille also encouraged members to boycott the annual Edgar Awards, an interesting suggestion for someone who makes such a point of his long support for the organization.

Barbara Peters, who owns a well-regarded crime fiction bookstore in Arizona and a crime fiction press, resigned from MWA, criticizing Attica Locke for using her Edgar award as a “bully pulpit” to raise the questions about Fairstein. This conveniently ignores that Penzler, who controls the publication of numerous crime fiction anthologies, and Peters herself, as a book publisher and owner of an important venue for writers selling books, are also leveraging their own powers, considerably weightier than that of a single, albeit well-awarded, writer. Peters used terms like “cyberbullying” and “caving to the mob” to describe what happened, as if she were not also trying to use her status in the crime fiction world as a lever.

First of all, let it be said that I am male, white AF, and old enough to: well, you get the idea. I am also thoroughly disgusted by the reactions of these insiders. Their arguments against the MWA decision (not, tellingly, arguments in favor of Fairstein’s award) amount to something like: “you kids just don’t play the game right.”

Well, old-timers, I’m here to tell you the game has changed. In case you haven’t been watching, the world has changed around you. The high school in my small city in Maine hosts a thousand students who represent 43 countries and speak 36 languages. I see them on the streets when I go out to lunch and I love the colors of their voices, the musicality of their presence in my days, so different than when I went to high school.

But I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt and not try and claim that your reaction is racially-tinged. It most certainly is privilege-tinged. All three of you have been operating in the center of this tiny inbred world of ours for so long that you’ve forgotten to look outside your own windows. You don’t see that some of our best writing is coming from places you don’t even know exist, people your blinders don’t let you see. I’d list some for you but I’d leave out too many deserving ones and I don’t want to betray the extent of my own ignorance. But at least I’m aware that I’m ignorant.

I’m sure you can point to writers you’ve championed who weren’t white or male, but the point is not checking boxes. The point is opening the doors of this MWA tent to everyone who wants to come in, not just everyone you approve of or recognize. And this means developing some sensitivity to the concerns of people who are not Just Like You.

The fact is your reactions bespeak a certain fading remnant of how publishing works—New York-centric, for a start, and much more interested in a writer’s ability to market him- or herself than in how well they tell a story or reflect our culture. (I would wager it’s easier for a black Nigerian to get published in this country than a black American.) One of the odd facts about this hoo-haw is that Linda Fairstein may write best-sellers, but her books are mediocre purveyors of character and story. I can name you ten crime writers in a ten-mile radius of my house who write better stories and, without straining, I could also list a dozen writers more deserving of a Grandmaster award.

But I’m not here to lament the weirdness of the publishing world. As our most recently rehabilitated political personality used to say: “wouldn’t be prudent.” The attitude of people on the inside of the crime writing world who don’t understand the insult of awarding an honor to someone whose work insulted those outside the in-group is absolutely typical of this country and this time. Look at our elected officials, local, state, and national, and tell me there isn’t a ton of education that needs to be done in terms of what the faces of our world look like. I would invite Mr. Penzler, Mr. deMille, and Ms. Peters to step a long ways outside the small circles they’ve drawn around themselves and open their eyes. And prepare themselves for the change that is already here.

Further reading:

About Richard Cass

Dick is the author of the Elder Darrow Jazz Mystery series, the story of an alcoholic who walks into a dive bar in Boston . . . and buys it. Solo Act was a Finalist for the Maine Literary Award in Crime Fiction in 2017 and In Solo Time won the award in 2018. The third book in the series, Burton's Solo, comes out on November 1, 2018. Dick serves on the Board of the Mystery Writers of America's New England chapter and lives and writes in Cape Elizabeth.
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6 Responses to Crime Writing and the Grandmaster

  1. Bravo, Dick. A well-done response, and one I support.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Jacki York says:

    Agreed.

    I was dismayed by the belated responses from Penzler, deMille, and Peters.

    Thank you for writing this!

    Like

  3. David Plimpton says:

    Excellent commentary.

    Other points. Not only a writer’s ability (which itself is in question here, apparently), but reputation for integrity in writing and in life are relevant considerations for prestigious awards. Fairstein’s reputation has long been tarnished by the wrongful prosecutorial actions and mistakes in the Central Park case, for which she apparently never accepted responsibility or was held accountable.

    Her actions in helping clear Harvey Weinstein of claims made by an actress in 2015, as part of a hit team on his behalf, are also a stain. Interestingly, Weinstein is now in the news big time.

    So it raises the questions: Why would the MWA award such a prestigious award to someone with such questionable credentials? Why would Penzler and others be so vehement in her defense? Is this part of an inappropriate effort to rehabilitate her reputation? What was in it for these people who supported her for the award? Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. Is something rotten in Denmark?

    Just asking.

    Like

  4. Great perspective. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Julianne says:

    YAY!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Amy B. says:

    Amen! Great post! The part about the changing face(s) of our schools and towns was lovely.

    Like

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