By Oline H Cogdill

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 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.

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