For me, the best news from the world of letters this month was the announcement that Carolyn Hart would be receiving the Grand Master Award from the Mystery Writers of America at next spring’s Edgar Awards banquet in Manhattan.
The Edgar is the Oscar of the mystery world, and the awards evening is suspense-filled as the nominees in a number of different categories — best mystery, best paperback original, best screenplay, etc. — gather to hear who the winners will be.
The Grand Master is an honorary, career achievement prize that goes to the titans in the field, from Agatha Christie to P.D. James on the other side of the Atlantic and from John D. MacDonald to Ira Levin in this country.
Hart has been writing exceptional mysteries for so long now — and she has the rare ability to maintain her own high standards with each new book — that it is easy to take her for granted.
We know that every year or so we will get a new installment in her ongoing “Death on Demand” series about a woman named Annie Darling who runs a mystery book shop on a South Carolina island much like Hilton Head. The style and quality of the books harken back to the work of Christie in terms of brilliant plotting and psychological acuity.
Hart also created a wonderful series about a retired journalist nicknamed Henrie O. that drew from the author’s original background in journalism. As Hart has admitted at more than one mystery writers’ conference, the character is a much braver and bolder version of herself in her own early days as a newspaperwoman.
The writer is a perfect choice for the Grand Master prize on multiple levels. In addition to the 50 novels she has contributed to the genre, Hart is a historian of the mystery novel and an avid fan of contemporary writers in the field. One of the kicks of the “Death on Demand” series is the way that it pays homage to dozens of terrific mystery writers in the books that Annie stocks on her shelves and the recommendations she makes to her loyal customers.
Hart is also an eloquent defender of the “traditional” mystery — sometimes put down with the “cozy” label. She knows that violence and sex can be even more potent in a whodunit when they are suggested rather than spelled out. Annie and her golden boy husband, Max, enjoy sex as much as any characters in an NC-17 noir, but Hart allows us to imagine what goes on behind the (closed) bedroom door — the same way that Hitchcock did in sexy mysteries such as “Rear Window” and “Notorious.”
Never one to rest on her laurels, Hart is one of the busiest contemporary mystery writers, adding to the “Death on Demand” series each year, but also making time to create a whole new series about a charming red-headed sleuth from the writer’s home state of Oklahoma.
The fact that Bailey Ruth Raeburn is dead and working cases as a ghost visitor from Heaven in no way interferes with Hart’s ability to fashion Christie-like plots involving money and sexual attachments.
The author rekindles the charm of the “Topper” films and the Warren Beatty hit “Heaven Can Wait” in her delightful rendering of the nuts-and-bolts operation of Heaven, where Bailey Ruth works as a part-time sleuth for the Department of Good Intentions.
In recent years, Hart has benefited from the rise of the ebook and alternative publishing with the reissuing of early novels that preceded her fame for the “Death on Demand” books.
Seventh Street Books in Amherst, N.Y. has released a line of “Carolyn Hart Classics” and Berkley Prime Crime has just published “Cry in the Night” which, for unfathomable reasons, was never available in any form until an ebook appeared last year.
“Cry in the Night” follows a New York City museum staffer named Sheila Ramsay on an adventure in Mexico City that involves stolen art. A mix of romantic suspense and traditional mystery, the novel is reminiscent of the work of Mary Stewart and Mary Roberts Rinehart, but with Hart’s distinctively journalistic grounding.
The Grand Master Award will honor a writer who combines the best elements of the classic and modern authors in her field.