"Murder... would seem to be a peculiar subject for a cultivated person to fasten on."
--Frank Preston Stearns, Sketches from Concord and Appledore (1895)
The Edgar Allan Poe Awards given out by the Mystery Writers of America (founded 1945) are to the mystery/crime genre what the Oscars are to moviemaking. They create buzz. They sell books. And they're a more or less great indicator of the best in the genre, a list to take to the library or bookstore... even if the nominations seem to reflect a strong male bias, not to mention a strong bias for books published by the "big" houses. They also seem to strongly prefer popular narratives (i.e. sans a lot of footnotes) as opposed to more historically focused accounts.
But the ladies actually held their own in the true crime category this year, with half the nominees being women authors! unlike the Best First Mystery Novel category (six nominees; six men) or the Best Paperback Original category (five nominees; five men) or Best Play (three nominees; three men) or Best TV Feature (five nominees; five men). Indeed, women seem to do better in the "Fact Crime" category than just about anything else. Anyway, before I make anyone else mad at me today, here is the list of 2005 nominees:
Ready for the People: My Most Chilling Cases as a Prosecutor by Marissa N. Batt
WINNER: Conviction: Solving the Moxley Murder: A Reporter and a Detective's Twenty-Year Search for Justice by Leonard Levitt
Are You There Alone? The Unspeakable Crime of Andrea Yates by Suzanne O'Malley
Forensics for Dummies by D.P. Lyle, M.D.
Ballad of the Whiskey Robber: A True Story of Bank Heists, Ice Hockey, Transylvanian Pelt Smuggling, Moonlighting Detectives, and Broken Hearts by Julian Rubinstein
Green River, Running Red: The Real Story of the Green River Killer by Ann Rule
One other book that was published in 2004 certainly should have made it onto this list, and I was very surprised and sorry to see it excluded, as it's hands down one of the best true crime accounts I've read in many years (and I read a lot of true crime). The book is American Taboo: A Murder in the Peace Corps by Philip Weiss (HarperCollins). The case itself is interesting, Mr. Weiss is an excellent writer, and the story unfolded in a fascinating way in his telling of it. The book concerns the murder of Deborah Gardner, a Peace Corps volunteer who was killed in 1975 in the Pacific island nation of Tonga. The breadth of his research and the extent to which he threshed the witnesses decades after the fact is a testament to Weiss's reporting skills (or susceptibility to obsession anyway). Weiss's book examines not only her death, but the reaction of the people of Tonga, the shock waves it sent through the Peace Corps, the shenanigans of the American man accused of the crime, his trial, and the shameful cover-up by the American government. I can't recommend this book highly enough -- it's riveting all the way around and deserved a nomination at the very least.
There's also another award out there worth noting - the Independent Publisher Book Awards, or "Ippy" awards. Independent authors and small presses are singled out for their contributions in a number of genres, and the true crime winner for 2005, followed by two finalists, are:
Winner: Portland Confidential: Sex, Crime, and Corruption in the Rose City, by Phil Stanford - This paperback, written by a columnist for the Portland Tribune, tells noir stories from 1950s Portland, Oregon, a "Mecca of vice and sin."
Finalist: Eleven Days of Hell: My True Story of Kidnapping, Terror, Torture and Historic FBI & KGB Rescue by Yvonne Bornstein with Mark Ribowsky - Bornstein tells the true story of her 1992 kidnapping from a Moscow airport and... well, the title tells the rest.
And now for the book that I am really excited about:
Finalist: The Murder at Asbury Park: The Classic Detective Story Revealed by Peter Lucia. This book tells the story of the murder of a ten-year-old girl in New Jersey, but not in the traditional way: the book is a CD-Rom of .pdf files. Rather than recasting the case and investigation in his own words, Peter Lucia has taken the original reports of the private detective who investigated the case and turned them into a rendering complete with hundreds of illustrations, featuring the detective's original reports. If you, like me, enjoy historical true crime and like to read the original sources, then you'll love this book and its fresh new approach to telling an old tale. One can only hope that it heralds something "new" in historical true crime. To order, go to Peter Lucia's website, asburymurder.com.