Archive for awards

Mary Higgins Clark, Speaking for Women

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

Mary Higgins Clark, Queen of Suspense

Literature became less suspenseful on January 31, the day that Mary Higgins Clark slipped out of the world.

Often called the Queen of Suspense, the 92-year-old author published more than 66 books in a forty-four year career. She was in Naples, Florida, working on a book when she passed away from complications of old age.

Mary was a native New Yorker who grew up in the Depression and suffered the loss of her father to heart attack while a young girl, and her husband to the same disease while she was raising their five children. That loss, however, did not result in the expected situation of her living out the rest of her days in hardship.

Mary’s tragedy put into motion the creative writing career she’d always wanted—to move from short stories to novels. She started out writing between 5 and 7 in the morning, then got her kids out the door, and then went by train from New Jersey into Manhattan to her office job at a script-writing company. When I think about how busy these workdays must have been, and then add on the five children in morning and evening, my head spins!

A lot is being said about the exemplary fortitude of Mary, and of her genius in creating a signature genre of domestic suspense novel that has exploded in the last few years.

But what I find most significant about Mary Higgins Clark is that she told secrets about women’s lives at a time that women were routinely silenced for their supposedly unimportant observations. Through her novels, Mary illustrated the wrongheadedness of the silencers, without seeming to be composing anything more than a vastly thrilling commercial novel.

After the breakout of her second book, Where are the Children?, MHC was able to write full-time. From that point on, every book she wrote was a national bestseller.  Her longtime publisher, Simon & Schuster, estimates she’s sold more than 100 million books in the United States alone.

The original book cover in 1975

I first caught sight of a Mary Higgins Clark book at my local B. Dalton bookstore in the mid-1970s. I should have been in the children’s section, but had ventured over to adult mystery, because I had become a fan of Conan Doyle and Christie. Where Are the Children? had a book jacket showing an isolated house in a windy field, and you could tell a bad storm was coming. I quickly discerned the story’s premise was  that children had disappeared and might have been killed by their mother. It seemed too much to handle. Now that I’m older and wiser, I’m sure Mary would have approved of the eleven-year-old me walking away from her blockbuster novel.

Recently, I listened to the audiobook version of Where Are the Children? Now that child abuse is not a huge cultural secret, there was a veiled child on the cover, making it even creepier.

I found the most disturbing parts were the chapters narrated by the killer/kidnapper. I fast-forwarded during most of his narration. But there was a lot else that I took in to with fascination. She transported me back to my memories of the early 70s. It was a time that America was split between “squares” and “rebels.” You were either a Nixon fan or absolutely against everything he stood for. To say you supported equality for women meant you were a “women’s libber,” which was usually uttered as an epithet.

The novel’s flawed protagonist, Nancy Eldridge, is no “women’s libber.” She is a housewife admired by the Cape Cod community where she lived for her gentle ways with her children. Nancy is very private because she is mired in an earlier trauma. There is no talk of women’s liberation; she’s married to a dear man who wants nothing more to protect her, just as she believes her first husband did.

The trauma is shared with the reader early on. Nancy recalls her college-age marriage to a professor. When she had two young children, her health and memory began to fail and the children disappeared and were later found murdered.  Nancy’s first husband, Carl, drowns himself in apparent grief when Nancy is charged with the children’s murders. She knows she didn’t kill them—but she doesn’t remember much about the time, and a witness claims she spoke of killing them. Nancy is released from prison on a technicality and leaves the country. Then, seven years later, when she’s remarried and living quietly on Cape Cod with a second husband and their two young children, they suddenly disappear on the morning of her birthday—which is also the anniversary of the earlier abductions. Nancy is sure they’ve been kidnapped and will be killed just as her first children were. She collapses. The police, after learning her past, think she’s their killer.

Nancy presents as a hysterical woman at a time when women were often considered hysterical and incapable of speaking for themselves. A psychiatrist using a truth serum is the key to uncovering what happened before, and he insists to the police chief that this might have bearing on the present crisis. The novel is packed with many paternalistic males, some of whom conspire to help Nancy, and others who suspect her. And there are three other strong women characters in the book, including a real estate secretary, a housewife and a grocery store owner,  who are repeatedly shut down by the men around them. A very negative male character presented to the reader is a military deserter, a recognition of the country’s divided feelings about the draft.

While Mary Higgins Clark had something very important to say about how society hushed up women and children, including those who are wounded by sexual abuse, she always did it through the lens of popular fiction. She wrote the kind of book that conservatives would pick up and consider just an other exciting book. The feminism goes down easy, like the cup of coffee or glass of wine her heroine enjoys when she is feeling relaxed and safe.

As decades passed, the books piled up and the heroines became career women. At their sides were good men who might be community members, although an attractive young one would usually serve as a love interest. There were always strong women characters close by the heroine. These ladies are often older relatives or secretaries, and presented by the author with glowing recognition of their attractiveness, compassion, and insight. These women know something’s wrong—and they speak up.

MHC had every book become a bestseller and was celebrated as a Grandmaster by the Mystery Writers of America. But she’d seen over the decades, how mysteries starring men racked up Edgar awards while those featuring women as anything other than victims, mothers or girlfriends were scarce. Mary asked her publisher to assist her in establishing an award for mysteries about women. She had strict criteria for the award winning book’s protagonist. The character was to be a woman without professional crime fighting occupation, to be someone with mostly positive family relationships who becomes sucked into a threatening situation that she must overcome using her own courage. The book also had to be free of explicit violence and sex and harsh profanities. The award is not exclusively for women writers; a male writer, Bill Floyd, has won, and the mother-son writing team of Charles Todd also took the prize one year.

To my right are Mariah Fredericks and Paula Munier

To select the Mary Higgins Clark Award, a judging committee of MWA members reads hundreds of novels that are whittled down to an announced shortlist of usually five or six books. Out of these nominees, a winner is announced at the Edgars dinner.

I was stunned to be nominated for The Samurai’s Daughter in 2004. In 2019, I was again nominated for a book in my new series, The Widows of Malabar Hill, which shared the nomination with books by Mariah Fredericks, Dianne Freeman, Julia Keller and Paula Muncier. Widows turned out to win that night, and I experienced so much surprise and joy that my heroine, Bombay lawyer Perveen Mistry, was now part of the MHC tradition. Mary was not at the Edgar Awards Dinner that night. We missed her.

I wonder what she would have thought, if we’d met. I don’t see myself as being close to MHC in style of writing or structure—and certainly, I lag behind her in productivity and sales. But she might have liked my heroine. A long time ago, I decided to commit to writing books about intelligent women who support themselves and those around them. It just felt natural.

This is how a lot of us go through life. We are sailing along minding our business, and something awful happens. Our crisis could be one of many terrible things: an incident of racism in the neighborhood, a family member’s pain, a financial setback or the news of a friend’s serious illness. We throw ourselves into action and try our best, no matter the outcome.

In the books of Mary Higgins Clark, we see ordinary women saving the universe. Ourselves amplified, everywhere.

From India with love

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

I’m filing this on my last day of a wonderful three weeks in Mumbai.

I was taking a walk through a shady, old-fashioned passageway in a typical 19th century shop building in the Colaba neighborhood. It was a delightful meander just steps from the historic Royal Bombay Yacht Club, where I spent my las few days.

With any trip, there are ups and downs. Over this trip, I haven’t had a moment of stomach trouble. However, I had a laptop fall very ill (and then recover, thanks to the geniuses at Maple Shop, as India’s Apple licensee is called). I switched the places and neighborhoods I was staying in three times and never really had a quiet night. Well, I guess it’s Mumbai, right?

Lovely old flat building in Bandra

I managed 20-plus interviews over this trip; I saw a new film, a popular play about a legendary actress, and a dress rehearsal of another play with a Bollywood connection (more on this one in another post). I attended an Odissi dance debut of a teenage artist. I shopped at a modern art show and filled my eyes with masterpieces of at the Bhau Daji Lad Museum of decorative arts and the Asiatic Society of Mumbai. I attended to a university lecture and was able to chat with students. I visited a historic Parsi colony and several courts of law—one of them the former coroner’s court, which I expected had been swept away since this legal process is no longer a necessity in Bombay. What a thrill to find the high-ceilinged room where cause of death was determined by a jury still exists, albeit filled with cubicles.

The Bhau Daji Lad museum offers a doll-sized view of history

The one thing I could have done but missed out on was being on set for a Bollywood film shoot. Do I regret not going because it was starting close to midnight?

As I sit in the airport, I admit I should have blinked away my fatigue and gone.

Therefore, I don’t have star photos for you, but in upcoming posts I aim to share what I loved so much about this trip to Mumbai.

And that even in 2020, it’s such a joy to be able to tread through the passageways of the city back to the Indo-Victorian world of my fiction.

Historic Wilson College is an inspiration for the next Perveen book

Whilst in India, I received the great surprise of a nomination for the 2020 Bruce Alexander award for historical fiction, and the 2020 Sue Grafton Memorial Award for a mystery featuring a female protagonist. The Lefty historical winner will be chosen by conventioneers voting at the Left Coast Crime convention in San Diego this March, and the Grafton award has been chosen by a judging committee and will be announced at the Edgars Dinner in New York in April. I am very excited and grateful that The Satapur Moonstone was enjoyed by both fans at LCC and a committee of professional writers serving as judges for the Edgars. I encourage you to check out the whole Lefty List and the Edgars List for books you might enjoy.

Sujata’s Writing Road, 2019

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

With debut author Tori Eldridge at Chevalier's in Los Angeles

With debut author Tori Eldridge at Chevalier’s in Los Angeles

I grew up in the age of point-and-shoot simple cameras, which at the time seemed beyond magically simple. But in the last ten years, the cell phone camera has thrown old-fashioned cameras to the curb. We are now responsible for being the chroniclers of our lives.

I feel that stopping what I’m doing to take pictures takes me out of the moment, so I don’t do it a whole lot. But when I travel, or have special friends come my way, I go straight to the camera app on my phone.

Here are some of my favorite moments saved over the last year—my grateful thanks to the invisible assistants who did a lot of the snapping. These pictures remind me how many people—family, writing friends, readers, and booksellers—have brought joy into my work life. I was thrilled to launch the second book in my Perveen Mistry series, The Satapur Moonstone, and humbled by the recognition given to the book before it, The Widows of Malabar Hill. And this made photo-ops!

For all these journeys, and so much more, I am grateful. You may notice a lot of books in these pictures. Whoever guesses the right number deserves their own prize.

Crime Writers of Color founder Kellye Garrett came to my house to make drinks

Twin Cities roundup: my stepmom Manju and good friends at Once Upon a Crime

My mother Karin and her longtime pal Don Johnson, an expert on Indian textiles

This was one of the biggest book talks on the tour due to Margaret and Kathy’s efforts

I was having a lonely dinner in Houston before a signing discovered two readers, Tara and Priyanka, were in the same bar!

There was literally a tornado hitting Kansas when I posed with Raven Books’ Danny Caine

Janet Rudolph’s legendary mystery bookclub read Widows!

What an honor to have audiobook narrator Sneha Mathan read for me in Seattle

Getting into position for Nancy Pearl’s web talk show, Book Lust

I drove to Santa Barbara for lunch and met a bunch of newsletter subscribers!

The hand-carved award for Best Historical Mystery at the Left Coast Crime Con

Celebrating the sheer glass Macavity win for Best Historical at Bouchercon with Soho’s Rudy, Juliet and Bronwen

With my husband just before winning the Mary Higgins Clark prize at the Edgars in NY

With my agent Vicky Bijur and the Agatha teapot

To touch a hot-of-the-press book for the first time is a real thrill!

Bouchercon 2019: Texas Welcome

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

I went to Dallas last weekend for Bouchercon, a 50-years-old-and-counting annual mystery convention. The weather was cold, yet the Texans were warm. So were the folks I chatted with among the flood of 1800 mystery lovers who arrived from all points. This year’s theme was suited to conventional thinking about Dallas: Diamonds, Denim and Death!

Every day was filled with book talk. This was done on panels, in the book room, the bar, the hallways. I met people from as far as Israel and India, and as close as Indianapolis. I met so many new friends that I hope to see again.

Retired diplomat Alfredo Barela knows me through Rei Shimura

Soho’s publisher Bronwen Hruska with author Francine Mathews

Even though Bouchercon is ostensibly about attending panels of crime novelists and publishing  professionals, there are many side parties and special activities. Soho Press, my publisher, specializes in mysteries by authors from around the world, and they threw a special reception for author Peter Lovesey, who was celebrating the eighteenth adventure of his brilliant police detective, Superintendent Peter Diamond. I tore almost one hundred raffle tickets for people wanting the Diamond book bonanza. This was another slick way to make friends.

Being charmed by author Teresa Dovalpage

Peter Lovesey’s grand giveaway being awarded by our editor Juliet Grames

With the Soho publishing gang

I feel so much at home with a publisher like Soho, who is enthusiastically committed to publishing great fiction with characters who are diverse in national backgrounds—and not sprinkled in for color, but because they are compelling people and their stories are unforgettable. At the Soho International Guest of Honor party, Peter Lovesey announced a new Soho contest for first-time authors with a paid advance and publication. He got his start with a literary contest in England, and that’s similar to how I broke into print (the Malice Domestic Unpublished Writers Grant Contest).

Loved signing near author Felicia Mason and cinematographer Semone

When I began going to Bouchercon in 1996, the majority attendance was white men. Gender dominated the atmosphere in the bar and in the pale rooms. For the most part, Bouchercon no longer has that feeling of an old boy network. The con feels like a place for many people to express what it is they bring to mystery or love about it. I hear about mystery book groups, field research in New Zealand, and secret hikes into off-limit areas. Also crafts, quilts, and cocktail recipes.

Anthony noms for Kellye Garrett, Lori-Rader Day, James W. Ziskin, Holly West

In addition to panels where we can learn the secrets behind beloved books, the convention is also a haven for awards ceremonies. The convention bestows a fan-voted prize called the Anthony, which is named after the inspiration of the convention, the late New York Times book critic Anthony Boucher, said to be the first journalist who treated mystery fiction as serious literary works. Other mystery-centric organizations like Mystery Readers International give out the Macavity awards for general mystery fiction, and the Private Eye Writers of America awards the Shamus awards for professional investigator novels and stories. The Barry and the Dillinger are also coveted awards at Bouchercon. But that’s not enough for Bouchercon. Its organizers also shower honors on booksellers, fans, and other special people who have built the power of mystery fiction. The overall theme is love and thanks for keeping our literary world booming.

S.A. Cosby, Anthony Winner

If you go to enough conventions, you may no longer wear a size six little black dress, but there are some sizable advantages. Being an old-timer means you can enjoy seeing friends and newcomers light up as they receive their first requests for books to be signed, and maybe even awards for them. This year brought a special thrill when my friend Shawn (S.A. Cosby), whose first novel comes out next year with Forge, won the Anthony for best short story. He had moved me to tears a few nights earlier reading this prize winning story, The Grass Beneath My Feet, aloud in the hotel bar.

Yes. Only with mystery lovers, is there read-aloud story time in bars.

Holding the Mcavity tight to my heart with Soho’s publisher, Bronwen Hruska

On Halloween night itself, I was humbled to win the Macavity Award for The Widows of Malabar Hill. It turned out to be a beautiful crystal keepsake that will be take pride of place alongside a fabric Macavity cat award I won many years ago for The Flower Master. The nominees in this category were so excellent, I think any one of us could have won. So I am especially grateful, following the amazing awards this book has already gathered.

I was also nominated for a Shamus award given by the Private Eye Writers of America. I was very surprised that Perveen Mistry was seen as fitting into this category—she’s a legal investigator, not a gumshoe. I hardly minded losing to Kristen Lepionka, who wrote a great modern PI novel featuring a woman, What You Want To See.

At the Shamus awards dinner, some words were casually said that led to many follow-up dialogs on Facebook and Twitter about how we can welcome people we don’t know well into our various tight-knit mystery worlds. Some of the conversations were quite heated, while others were healing. Anyway, it wasn’t until a few days after I got home that I could put away this other baggage, too.

When the new books go on the shelf, the old suitcase returns to the attic, and the wrinkled receipts go to the tax box, I no longer have visions of diamonds, denim and death.

It’s time to stop chatting and start writing again.

The Right Kind of Malice

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

When I began writing fiction, I didn’t know conventions for writers even existed. (I think the Murder is Everywhere gang might excommunicate me for the confession). Before I was published, I joined   the wonderful international program Sisters in Crime. Experienced women writers in that group told me that I would learn a lot to help myself at mystery conventions. For example, I could hear famous mystery novelists talk about how they wrestled with plots; make friends of readers who knew everything and everyone, and maybe even catch up with a literary agent.

Signature collector Risa hits up novelist Vivien Chien

The first mystery convention I visited was Malice Domestic, a fabulous convention that advertises it is “not everyone’s cup of tea.” Malice does not usually have pleasant connotations, but if you meet a Malice reader, chances are she will hug you before the conversation is over.

Photographer Iden Ford, Welsh author Cathy Ace, and author Donna Andrews

Mystery authors drawn here are primarily (but not exclusively women and the style of mystery storytelling is “traditional” (no gratuitous sex or violence). Yes, the favored mysteries are chock full of suspense and bad things happen—usually a murder that must be solved—but the reader will not feel like vomiting at language and painful images in a Malice book. Also, the mysteries of choice tend to be series books, rather than stand-alones.

My friend Patsy Asher in the hospitality lounge. Writers have filled a table with promo items!

And Malice Domestic is itself a long-running series, if you talk about location. Unlike many conventions, this one does not move around: it has been in the Washington DC suburbs for all of its 31 years, save a couple of years in downtown Washington, when something mysterious happened in an elevator that made the convention shoot back to the suburbs. Currently it’s housed over a three-day weekend at a Marriott Hotel in North Bethesda.

Because of the recurring DC area location, many of the fans are from DC, Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Ohio. It takes me about an hour to get to the con by car or train. What could be easier?

Kathy Harig with her assistant Dorothy from Mystery Loves Company Books in Oxford, MD, are the primary sellers of new mysteries.

However—writers come here from Canada, England, and all over the country—and they also tend to be repeat offenders. Male mystery folk are welcomed like brothers come home from college, but to my unscientific eye they make up less than ten percent. Bloggers are a new crowd that came in over the last fifteen years or so… these hardworking, usually unpaid book reviewers are great company.

Hanging with Blogger Dru Ann Love of Dru’s Musings

I began my association with this crew when I won a Malice Domestic Unpublished Writers Grant. In 1996, I submitted a partial manuscript of my first mystery novel into a contest that was overseen by longtime serious mystery readers on the Malice board including Bill F. Deeck, a marvelous mystery man who sadly passed away too young—and as a result, the award is now named in his honor. There are other awards, too: the Agathas, named in homage to the mother of the traditional series mystery, Agatha Christie. Malice attendees nominate their favorite novels, stories and true crime books that relate to writing mystery and the traditional mystery genre from the previous year. These are extremely coveted awards because they come in the shape of a teapot. Yes, an actual working teapot that is custom made to the convention’s specifications, with a lovely new design revealed each season.

Beth Schmelzer, retired children’s librarian, has been influential in bringing children’s mystery authors to Malice

I returned to Malice Domestic last weekend. Over the 23 years that have passed, I think I only missed six conventions because I’d moved to Minnesota. I always wind up having long, happy conversations with the friends I’ve met over the years—and I make new ones each time. In a way, Malice is like the high school you should have gone to, where everyone is welcoming, and everyone wants to read (as opposed to playing sports).

At my banquet table, you’ll see mystery writers Maya Corrigan and James Ziskin from left.

This year, I was on quite a high because The Widows of Malabar Hill was one of five nominees in the Best Historical Mystery category. This first novel in my Perveen Mistry series brought me very good luck at the Left Coast Crime convention and the Edgar Awards, so I figured my luck had run out. And just look at these fabulous fellow writers who were nominated.

My fellow best historical nominee LA Chandler, left, and writer Lea Wait on right

I nearly passed out when I heard that I won… I managed to float through the ballroom up to the stage but proceeded on the exit stairway rather than the entry stairway, so I had to go down again to get my beautiful teapot before making my acceptance speech.

The teapot is just right for tea with my agent Vicky Bijur

Several days later, I am still reeling from the shock of this recognition for Perveen Mistry. I am so happy that a book set in India, telling a tale of strong women facing adverse circumstances and ending on an upbeat note, made it into the hearts of so many readers.

I am about to launch the second Perveen Mistry, The Satapur Moonstone. I don’t expect lightning to strike twice, but the joyful celebration at the Malice convention will buoy me through whatever comes next.