Ever since 1945, Mystery Writers of America has been the preeminent professional organization in the United States for authors of mystery/crime/suspense/espionage fiction and the professionals (editors, publishers, booksellers, reviewers, agents) who feed off them.
To the public, MWA is mainly visible in late spring, when it gives out the Edgar Allan Poe Awards in a variety of categories. This is, of course, a tricky business. Not only is it difficult to pick a "best" of anything, but the range of books is so vast that inevitably apples will compete with kumquats for best of show. How do you decide which is better, a huge thriller by Ken Follett or a delicious confection by Alexander McCall Smith?
We all have our prejudices (yes, you too). I admit that if I were on the Best Novel committee, books with cutesy pun titles would be eliminated before I read the first page. They may be fun, they may have their charm, but they are not serious literature and don't deserve an Edgar. Which is why someone had the bright idea to create Malice Domestic, a conference devoted to fiction so lightweight that an anvil on top of it is the only way to prevent it from floating off to the great library in the sky. Other readers might eliminate espionage novels, feeling they are not "mysteries," or books with dirty words and nasty sex scenes because they think these things have no place in a nice mystery.
A new organization has just started up as a counterweight to the literarily negligible works honored at Malice Domestic. David Morrell and Gayle Lynds, two stars of the thriller world, have helped create International Thriller Writers Inc. ITW arrives with ambitious plans to hold its own convention, present awards (as yet unnamed), and generally help to get recognition for the type of book its members produce. There are many types of thrillers: spy, legal, police, medical, action-adventure, historical, romantic, political, religious, high-tech. As the organization states, what people mainly want from a thriller is, well, a thrill.
"What gives readers common ground," ITW states, "is the intensity of the emotions they create, particularly those of apprehension and exhilaration, of excitement and breathlessness. By definition, if a thriller does not thrill, it is not doing its job. Thrillers are known for their pace, the force with which they hurtle the reader along. They are an obstacle race in which an objective is achieved at great heroic cost. The objective can be personal (trying to save a spouse or a long-lost relative) or global (trying to avert a world war) and often is both."
Some of the authors who have already become members are Clive and Dirk Cussler, John Lescroart, James Patterson, Lee Child, Linda Fairstein, Stuart Woods, and Eric Van Lustbader.
With this star-studded lineup of members, the organization can have only a thrilling future. For lots of really interesting stuff by and about these members and others, visit the ITW website: www.thrillerwriters.org.
The loony and irresistible author and musician Kinky Friedman has really done it this time. First, his new mystery will be his last, he says. Kinky, who has been the lead character (and one uses the word advisedly) in a long running and successful series, is killed in "Ten Little New Yorkers" (Simon & Schuster, $24) much as Arthur Conan Doyle killed Sherlock Holmes at the Reichenbach Falls more than a hundred years ago.
In this homage to Agatha Christie (though he's a lot funnier than that Grand Dame), eight people are murdered in Greenwich Village and all clues point to Kinky, whose innocence can be inferred by the fact that he, too, becomes a murder victim.
And why is the Kinkster doing this? He has announced that he's running for Governor of Texas in 2006, describing himself as the first independent candidate in the Lone Star State since Sam Houston in 1859. He explains that he doesn't think he'll be able to write any more mysteries while he's in the governor's mansion. His campaign slogan, offered with all the dignity and gravity one would expect, is "Why the Hell Not?"
For all the zaniness, however, it should be noted that he lives on a Texas-size spread called "Animal Rescue Ranch," and has devoted a great deal of his time, energy, and money to saving at-risk animals.
Kinky would get my vote.
This last item is not specifically about mystery fiction, but it could be one of the more important developments in the history of books and reading.
Google has announced that it will digitally scan the book collections of four university libraries and the New York Public Library. Once a book has been scanned, it will become part of Google's search index.
The University of Michigan, with seven million volumes, and Stanford, with eight million, have agreed to have their entire collections scanned, while Harvard, Oxford, and the NYPL are limiting participation to rare and out-of-print books. Users will be able to access the entire text of a public-domain book, while books still protected by copyright will show only a snippet, as well as bibliographic information.
What remains to be seen is what impact this staggering project, with its ability to disperse information worldwide within seconds, will have on libraries and bookstores. Will libraries, always struggling with budgets, decide there is no longer a reason to buy public-domain books? Will bookstores specializing in rare volumes become as obsolete as Checker cabs and good manners?
That's a mystery only time can answer - much like whether Malice Domestic will ever honor a book that deserves longer shelf life than a bucket of mackerel.
Mr. Penzler is the proprietor of The Mysterious Bookshop. He can be reached at [email protected].