Mystery fiction has been a major part of my life since I was a child. I’ve said so many times that I have never read a Nancy Drew or a Hardy Boys—I started with Agatha Christie, Rex Stout, etc.
In the beginning, these were just entertaining stories, puzzles to figure out, characters who didn’t resemble anyone I knew. But as I got older, mysteries began to encompass new writers who introduced readers to different worlds. (Thank you, Sue Grafton, Sara Paretsky, Marcia Muller.)
One of those authors who brought readers to another world was Barbara Neely, who has been named the 2020 Grand Master by Mystery Writers of America (MWA). The 2020 Raven Award recipient is Left Coast Crime, and Kelley Ragland will receive the Ellery Queen Award at the 74th Annual Edgar Awards Banquet, which will be held at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in New York City on April 30, 2020.
All the honorees for MWA’s special awards are deserving, and I will get to them in a minute.
In making the announcement, MWA board president Meg Gardiner said. “Neely is a groundbreaking author, . . . she tackles tough social issues with an unflinching eye and a wry sense of humor.”
That perfectly sums up Neely.
I was sold on Neely when I read her debut Blanche on the Lam, which introduced Blanche White, the first black female series sleuth in mainstream American publishing. Blanche wasn’t a cop, a detective or a lawyer. She was a domestic worker whose role often made her invisible to her employers.
Blanche knew that people often didn’t notice her, only her work, and that most people would not recognize her if they saw her outside the house. But Blanche noticed everything—and everyone. She used her invisibility as an asset to her sleuthing skills. Nothing got passed Blanche.
In addition to her strong personality and wry sense of humor, Blanche also was a plus-sized woman.
A domestic by choice because the job affords her independence and easy money, Blanche refused to tolerate discrimination of any type, whether it's bias because of her job, her race or another's sexuality.
In my review of Blanche Passes Go, I said “Blanche may work for fools, but she doesn't suffer in silence about racism, sexism or classism, whether it's from her white employers or a member of her own race.”
From Blanche on the Lam, “Blanche thought of herself as being not simply open-minded but a cheerleader for people who were different from what the rule-setters said was the way to live, behave, or feel.”
As a result, the Blanche novels often touched on social commentary, and tackled such issues as violence against women, racism, class boundaries, and sexism.
Blanche on the Lam (1992), received the Agatha Award, Anthony Award, and the Macavity Award for best first novel, as well as the Go on Girl! Award from Black Women’s Reading Club. The four novels about Blanche included Blanche Among the Talented Tenth (1994), Blanche Cleans Up (1998), and Blanche Passes Go (2000).
According to MWA release, Neely was born in 1941 in Lebanon, Pennsylvania. Her biography states that she was the only child of African-American descent to attend her elementary and high school in this heavily German influenced community. She attended the University of Pittsburgh where she earned her master’s degree in Urban and Regional planning before beginning a career in the public sector. Neely served as director of Women for Economic Justice, worked in the Philadelphia Tutorial Project, became the director of a YWCA, and headed a consultant firm for nonprofits. In addition, she became a radio producer for Africa News Service, and later, a staff member at Southern Exposure magazine.
Although the Blanche novels were out of print for a while, Neely is among 28 authors whose backlists have found a new home with publisher Brash Books, which was launched in fall 2014 by veteran crime novelists and longtime friends Joel Goldman and Lee Goldberg.
THE RAVEN AWARD
The Raven Award recognizes outstanding achievement in the mystery field outside the realm of creative writing. This is an award that is close to my heart as I was honored with it in 2013.
Taking the 2020 Raven Award will be Left Coast Crime, an annual mystery convention sponsored by mystery fans, both readers and authors. It was first held in San Francisco in 1991. It is an all-volunteer organization that raises money each year to support a local literacy organization with funds collected through silent and live auctions, and the annual Quilt Raffle. The Left Coast Crime Permanent Committee is Bill and Toby Gottfried, Noemi Levine, Janet Rudolph, Lucinda Surber, and Stan Ulrich.
The next Left Coast Crime will be March 12 to 15, 2020, in San Diego.
THE ELLERY QUEEN AWARD
Kelley Ragland, associate publisher and editorial director of Minotaur Books, will be honored with the Ellery Queen Award, established in 1983 to honor “outstanding writing teams and outstanding people in the mystery-publishing industry.”
According to MWA’s release, Ragland was fresh out of college and newly relocated to NYC when she started as an editorial assistant at St. Martin’s Press in 1993, became an editor in 1998, and took part in the creation of the St. Martin’s Publishing Group’s crime and suspense imprint, Minotaur Books, in 1999. She became Editorial Director of Minotaur in 2009 and Vice President and Associate Publisher in 2015. During her 26 years at St. Martin’s, she has worked with such authors as Jeffrey Archer, Kelley Armstrong, Linda Barnes, Steve Berry, Allison Brennan, Chelsea Cain, Andrew Gross, Charlaine Harris, Louise Penny, Dana Stabenow, Olen Steinhauer, and many others.
Previous Grand Masters include Martin Cruz Smith, William Link, Peter Lovesey, Walter Mosley, Lois Duncan, James Ellroy, Robert Crais, Ken Follett, Martha Grimes, Sara Paretsky, James Lee Burke, Sue Grafton, Stephen King, Mary Higgins Clark, Lawrence Block, P.D. James, Ellery Queen, Daphne du Maurier, Alfred Hitchcock, Graham Greene, and Agatha Christie, to name a few.
Previous Raven winners include Marilyn Stasio, Raven Bookstore in Lawrence, Kansas, Dru Ann Love, Sisters in Crime, Margaret Kinsman, Kathryn Kennison, Jon and Ruth Jordan, Aunt Agatha’s Bookstore in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Oline Cogdill, Molly Weston, The Mysterious Galaxy in San Diego, Centuries & Sleuths Bookstore in Chicago, Once Upon a Crime Bookstore in Minneapolis, Mystery Lovers Bookstore in Oakmont, PA, Kate’s Mystery Books in Cambridge, MA, and The Poe House in Baltimore, MD.
Previous Ellery Queen Award winners include Linda Landrigan, Robert Pépin, Neil Nyren, Janet Rudolph, Charles Ardai, Joe Meyers, Barbara Peters and Robert Rosenwald, Brian Skupin and Kate Stine, Carolyn Marino, Ed Gorman, Janet Hutchings, Cathleen Jordan, Douglas G. Greene, Susanne Kirk, Sara Ann Freed, Hiroshi Hayakawa, Jacques Barzun, Martin Greenburg, Otto Penzler, Richard Levinson, William Link, Ruth Cavin, and Emma Lathen.
Photo of Barbara Neely by Zamani Flowers
Today’s blog is written by a special guest, South Florida theater critic Bill Hirschman, chief critic and editor of floridatheateronstage.com.
By Bill Hirschman
As an internationally popular writer with 28 New York Times best-selling mystery novels, James Grippando is usually focused on whodunits.
But the award-winning Florida author is about to see the world premiere of his first playscript, Watson, at GableStage this weekend – as much a howdunit and whydunit that ask questions about technology, capitalism and responsibility – as well as the interpersonal relationships explored in mysteries these days.
Set against the corporate world of America in the 1930s and then the Holocaust in Germany, Grippando says the true-life tale may be “the first personal information disaster” in modern story – a theme that obviously resonates with the most current headlines today.
Although the story is told through the American head of IBM, Thomas J. Watson Sr., the underlying premise has several steps. In the 1930s, IBM developed a punch card non-computer tabulating technology that could catalog and track people. A subsidiary sold many of these to the German government, which then used it to conduct a detailed census. That census recorded many details, but, on point here, religion.
When Hitler came to power, the database was used to identify and round up Jews for the concentration camp. At the camps, the detailed information about skills and the like was used to determine who could be useful temporarily and who to kill immediately.
The question -- raised in a 2001 lawsuit about the company’s complicity in the horror, as well as the subject of articles and a book -- is how much did Watson know what it was being used for. In 1937, he became the first American to receive the German Merit Cross, one of highest honors that Hitler bestowed on a non-German. Then in 1940, before American entered World War II, stories about the roundups and concentration camps were emerging. Watson returned the medal under significant pressure from friends and Jewish leaders.
“Was it true crisis of conscience crisis or was it a good business decision for him to issue a press release saying I gave back the medal,” Grippando said, “It certainly raises questions about morality versus obligations to your shareholders.”
Watson was a classic 20th century businessman who saw himself as one of the greatest capitalist who ever lived, but was convicted in 1912 under the Sherman Anti-Trust Act when he ran NCR. Throughout the play, his decisions and life, is being judged by his son, Thomas Watson Jr., in a contentious and complex relationship.
“They loved each other but they just went to war all the time, and in some ways, it's a tragedy really. Mr. Watson had an image of himself of what he wanted to be and particularly a relationship that he wanted with his son that never really materialized because of his own hubris.”
Grippando, a lawyer from Coral Springs, has always been fascinated by theater, but primarily as a patron of GableStage among other theaters and as a lawyer for Broadway producer Seth Greenleaf, who is a mutual friend with Producing Artistic Director Joseph Adler.
In fact, Grippando’s sole previous effort at writing for theater occurred a few years ago as the result of research he originally did as back story for a novel, a 1944 incident in which a 15-year-old boy was lynched in Florida. It didn’t quite work.
Grippando had heard of the 2001 lawsuit filed by Holocaust survivors against IBM, which was later dismissed because the statute of limitations had run out. But Adler had heard of it independently and asked Grippando about 18 months ago to see if there was a play in there.
Adler wrote in between rehearsals this week, “I thought it had the makings of an important play: the fact that an American corporation like IBM had cooperated with the German government by sharing important technology with them leading up to and during World War II. “
There was no immediate pressure. So Grippando spent six months on and off in research. The veteran storyteller said “It didn't strike me as a story. Joe and I bandied it back and forth for several months.
Then, he realized that Watson himself and his relationship with his son provided the necessary throughline and posed the crucial questions.
“I mean he, to the day he died, he never admitted he ever did anything wrong. So his conduct was, I would say, ambiguous. I think the audience will draw their own conclusions.”
After four very different drafts, he showed one to Adler a few months ago.
Adler recalled, “When we finally reached the point where it truly came alive, I was so excited that I made an immediate decision to put it in our very first slot. He scrapped announced plans to open his season with the political play Hillary and Clinton. “Needless to say, making a sudden change like that on such short notice presents many challenges. However, I can say with absolute certainty that the theater gods were smiling on us because it has all worked out beyond my greatest expectations.”
The two spoke on the phone and met regularly sometimes for days at a time reshaping and tweaking.
Adler said, “It has been an absolute pleasure to collaborate with James. His talent and professionalism – coupled with the fact that he works faster than anyone I have ever known – has made this everything I had hoped it would be from the moment we’ve started.”
Grippando is in no rush to tackle another play quite yet. But the experience has had some side benefits to his day job, especially when faced with some of the region’s best actors: Stephen G. Anthony as Watson Sr., Iain Batchelor as Watson Jr., plus a blue-ribbon troupe of South Florida actors playing multiple roles: Peter Galman, Diana Garle, Peter Haig, Margot Moreland and Barry Tarallo.
They provided Grippando with a humbling experience, he recalled with a laugh. “The first fatal mistake: watching an actor stumble over a piece of dialogue that you've written that you thought it was so beautifully written, that doesn't go off the tongue at all.”
Now it’s back to his prolific output as a mystery novelist, especially his series about Miami lawyer Jack Swytek, the latest of which is The Girl In the Glass Box.
“This is going to really take me up a notch just in writing great dialogue,” he added.
Watson runs Nov. 23-Dec. 22 at GableStage, 1200 Anastasia Ave., Coral Gables, inside the Biltmore Hotel. Performances 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sunday. No performance Thursday the 28th. For tickets and more information, call 305-445-1119 or visit GableStage.org.
Photos: Top: James Grippando; photo courtesy Harper
Second photo: Iain Batchelor gets lectured by his father played by Stephen G. Anthony as the titular character in the world premiere play Watson at GableStage.; Bottom photo: Margot Moreland , Peter Haig, Stephen G. Anthony and Iain Batchelor / Photos by George Schiavone