11 Days Remaining

Thursday 31st
posted by Morning Star in Arts

Morning Star columnist MAT COWARD is also a writer of mystery fiction and one of his stories has been shortlisted for the Edgar Allan Poe award. Here he ruminates on what it means to him

MANY things went through my mind after I heard that my short story On Borrowed Time has been been nominated for the Edgar, not least whether anyone has ever refused one.

Probably not, because it doesn’t seem like that sort of award.

But lots of people have turned down lots of honours over the years. The artist LS Lowry is thought to be the all-time British record-holder, having declined an OBE (1955), a CBE(1961), a knighthood(1968) and a Companion of Honour (1972 and 1976).

The socialist writer and broadcaster JB Priestley said no to a life peerage in 1965. But he accepted the award for pipe smoker of the year in 1979 — every man has his own special vanities, after all.

I remembered the story I was told years ago about a bibulous novelist who arrived home drunk one night to find a letter awaiting him from Buckingham Palace, informing him that he was to be knighted.

He immediately scrawled an intemperate reply on the back of the original, explaining that as a lifelong proponent of republicanism he could not imagine any greater insult and went straight out to post it.

When he awoke, sober, the next morning he immediately remembered that far from being a republican he was in fact an enthusiastic supporter of the monarchy.

But by then it was too late.

It occurred to me that I don’t know exactly how the Edgar committee arrives at its selection. But I do know how the FBI fills a vacancy on its 10 most-wanted fugitives list.

First, you have to be nominated by the local field office. Those nominations are then scrutinised by a panel at FBI headquarters before the winning candidate is submitted to the deputy director and, ultimately, the director for final approval.

It’s a very slow process. You can’t help feeling that the FBI should take a tip from the Mystery Writers of America and hold a banquet for nominees. Just see who turns up, you never know your luck.

I also realised that I am still furious about the second place Dot, my Jack Russell terrier, received in the Dog With the Most Beautiful Eyes category at a Kent village fete in 1970.

Most days I can deal with the anger. It’s not as if I’m going looking for the judges all these years later but all I’m saying is: “That dog had very nice eyes. If you want to think there was, genuinely, a dog with nicer eyes in that competition, that’s fine. That’s your business. That’s up to you. I happen to know you’re mistaken. We’ll leave it at that.”

I did that thing that I’m sure you’ve done at some time or another in your life. I waited for a few hours before telling anyone about the nomination, just in case I got a follow-up email saying: “OMG, look, this is so embarrassing! Turns out I was reading from the wrong piece of paper! You’re actually on the list for Dullest Short Story of the Entire Year!

“No kidding, it was really just a bit of fun we were having here in the office when we were snowed in one weekend and it was never really intended for public consumption. Lol! Hope you don’t mind!”

Even then, when I finally posted about the nomination online, I was careful to write: “I have apparently been nominated for an Edgar,” so that if it still turned out not to be true, I wouldn’t look such an idiot. “Yeah, right, you’re like the hundredth person to tell me that! Duh! I already knew — I mean, which part of ‘apparently’ don’t you understand?”

I wished I’d come up with a less dull title for my story. More meaningful, more original, cleverer, more insightful, more memorable.

Though, to be honest, I have such a struggle with titles these days that, as it is, it took me only slightly longer to write the story than it did the title.

For my next Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine story, I came up with the title first and then built a narrative to fit it. That’s a much better system. Get the difficult bit out of the way before you start.

“Nomination” isn’t that easy a word to drop into conversation casually. “Oh, actually, you know what? You talking about nominations reminded me, I’d almost forgotten, I had an email this morning ...”

People just don’t use that word very often. In the end, I had to resort to mishearing. “Abominations? Oh, sorry, I thought you said nominations! I’m an idiot, forgive me. All I was going to say was — nothing very interesting — just that I had an email this morning, while we’re on the subject of denominations, and ...”

I wonder what this news will do to my number of Twitter followers? Well, that was soon answered. The number dropped by several dozen. There are number of hypotheses that might explain this.

Perhaps it was part of an organised protest against the criteria, qualifications, morality and general common sense of the nominating panel.

Then, maybe, a lot of people saw the message and thought: “I wonder who this guy is and why I’m following him?” and took the opportunity to stop following me.

It’s very easy to follow people you have no interest in on Twitter, but set against that is the considerable satisfaction gained by unfollowing them sometime later. Not in a hostile way; just for the small burst of satisfaction which follows any successfully completed housekeeping task.

In the end, it may just be because I almost never tweet anything and when I do it’s almost always late at night and what I tweet is almost certain to cause lasting offence on grounds of political or sporting allegiance to roughly 30 per cent of those who see it, while being of actual interest to around 5 per cent.

I have often noticed that when I don’t tweet anything at all for weeks on end my number of followers grows steadily. And every time I do tweet something — anything — the number starts falling. You can only admire the brains that came up with this brilliant model of 21st-century communication.

I reminded myself to be pleased. Short-story writing brings very few days of joy — the day the story is accepted, the day the cheque arrives, the day you finally come up with a title, especially if this isn’t eight months after the story was published, that’s about it.

So it’s important to notice them when they happen. Which is why, as I fell asleep on the day I found out my name was on the list of Edgar nominees, I was thinking about the Olympic gold-medal winner whose name does not appear on any lists.

The Netherlands team, in the coxed-pairs rowing event at the 1900 Olympic Games in Paris, made it through the semis but feared that their cox was too heavy for them to triumph in the final.

So they kicked him out and replaced him with a little French boy, picked at random from among the spectators.

They won, in a tense and tight finish with the French. But, to this day, nobody has ever been able to discover that child’s name.

And the thing is, he quite probably didn’t care. He’d had a nice time watching the boats and then, to top it all, he’d even had a ride in one of them.

I’ll bet that was a great day out and I’ll bet he remembered it from time to time all his life and I hope he had many more. I hope we all do.

  • The winner of the award will be announced on April 28.