On behalf of Mystery Writers of America, let me officially applaud, stamp feet, and shout hosannas to welcome you. I’m delighted that all you authors, filmmakers, editors, publicists, journalists, and fans have broken out fresh pantyhose or donned your spiffiest tie to celebrate with us.
These dinners are always splendid occasions because we are coming together to acclaim the work we’re passionate about and the writers who created it. These honors signify the best of a damn good lot. Knowing that a work is an Edgar winner or a nominee is reason enough for any sensible enthusiast to seize a book off the rack, slap down a sawbuck for a ticket to a movie, plop down for a show. We at MWA realize “mystery” is a pretty broad term. Nevertheless, whether your taste runs to whodunits, police procedurals, legal drama, true crime or suspense, this genre we’re hailing tonight, whether on page, stage or screen, enjoys a huge following. Mysteries are not only ubiquitous, they’re powerful. They leave us breathless on the beach, nurse us through the flu, comfort us during scary plane rides, keep us up long past our bedtimes with cheap or expensive thrills. They are a striking cultural link between cops and robbers, head of state and residents of Death Row.
But what brings us all here tonight? What’s so magical about the mystery that transforms so many of us into fans, and from fans into fanatics? To begin with, it’s a timeless form. In almost all its permutations, the mystery has the same grip on us as did the tale of derring-do recounted by a Neanderthal raconteur around the fire in a cave.
From the Pleistocene Age to modern times, we have that urgent need to know ‘What happens next?’ It’s a drive almost as fundamental as our requirement for food and shelter. We’re a storytelling genus. Listening to a narrative unfold- whether over a slice of roasted woolly mammoth or over the radio ? is one of the ways we deepen our understanding of how the world works, of how our compatriots think and act, of how we ourselves fit into the cosmos.
Today, when we no longer have to fear becoming someone else’s dinner, we still need the thrill of the hunt. Instinctively, we turn to the mystery. It offers more than mere adventure. We come to it as we do to any literature, as we try to dope out the mystery of our own humanity. Does the storyteller’s view of the universe square with ours? If not, does it add to out sum of knowledge? But the mystery offers another plus. It deals with the foundation of every society: justice, or the lack of it. In the classic whodunit, the stability of the world is thrown out of whack by a crime, usually murder. By tracking down and catching the evildoer, the sleuth helps bring the scales of justice back into balance. God’s in His heaven, and if all isn’t all right with the world, at least there is some equity. Of course, in the noir novel and certainly in some true crime accounts, the view is less rosy. If, as John F. Kennedy suggested, life is unfair, then the mystery form is malleable enough to accept that vision. There is no compulsory “… and they lived happily ever after.”
But all this universality business isn’t the only reason we get hooked. What keeps us turning the pages is that, by and large, books in the genre are well-written, certainly as well-written as any other form of fiction. I suspect one of the reasons is that mysteries come close to being an equal opportunity art form. Edgar himself was a Protestant white guy, and there are many fine writers of his stripe working in the genre. However, they don’t constitute any mystery canon. This is a club that would have me and you as members, too. Individuals too daunted to try their hand at literary fiction will shrug, say ?What the hell,’ and give the mystery a shot. You can have five degrees from Harvard or be a dropout from P.S. 197 and wind up writing dreck on toast ? or a success fou. A most democratic form. The tolerance extends farther than simply to authors. Detective-protagonists can be any gender, ethnicity, color or caste. They can be saints or malefactors, medieval monks or contemporary creeps. Sure, it’s our native need to know what happens next that keeps us reading. Except even when you pick up an ancient paperback and realize, on yellowed, crumbly page seventy-two, that not only have you read this book before but that you also recall who done it, you keep reading. How come? For the sheer fun of going for a great ride again.
So here’s my toast: To the mystery! And to you! For all you MWA members and guests, I hope you’ll take pleasure in our big night. I wish you a dandy evening ? and many more years of felicitous reading.