Here’s Why I Lost

Jeffrey Cohen

This past week, I did not win the Gumshoe Award for best mystery novel of 2005. This is not terribly unusual, as I did not win the Gumshoe Award the previous week, either, or any other week since, roughly, birth. So it didn’t strike me as a tremendous surprise that I didn’t win.

The difference was that this year, my book AS DOG IS MY WITNESS was actually nominated for a Gumshoe Award, and so the possibility actually existed that it could have won. That was a surprise. I was actually shocked to have been nominated, as my work isn’t what you generally think of in the same sentence as the word “award.” And yet, there it was, in pixel and white, on the Mystery Ink web site. In fact, there were only five people on the planet who were eligible to win said award this past week, and I was one of them.

That’s something in itself, don’t you think?

Don’t worry: this isn’t going to be a diatribe on how unfair it all is, and how I should have won the award, but it’s all politics. Because the fact is, I understand precisely why DOG didn’t win the award, and Laura Lippman’s TO THE POWER OF THREE did.

The main reason my book didn’t win was that it actually was not the best mystery of 2005. I don’t know if Laura’s book was–it’s entirely possible, but I honestly haven’t read every mystery published during the year, so I can’t say for sure–but I know it wasn’t mine.

This is NOT to say that AS DOG IS MY WITNESS isn’t a good book. I think it’s my best so far, and truly believe that it accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do: it sets up a tricky mystery, develops the characters in the Aaron Tucker series a little more, has a good number of laughs (which is always my objective) and gets in a little covert information about Asperger Syndrome, the high-functioning form of autism that Aaron’s son shares with my own. Not a bad few hours read. I’m proud of the book, so don’t think this is a pitch for the Smallest Ego in the Publishing Business Award, which I also would not win.

The thing is that DOG isn’t meant to be the Best Mystery of the Year. A few people who read it might think it is–as my daughter says, everymovie is someone’s favorite–and I’m certainly not going to argue with them. But it’s not designed to be a huge statement about the human condition (other than to touch lightly on people responding to differences in others), the most astonishing thriller since Alfred Hitchcock gave up the ghost and became one, or my answer to Dennis Lehane’s most recent question, whatever it might have been. No, DOG was always intended to be a light entertainment and little more. An award for FUNNIEST mystery of the year? Yes, I’m egotist enough to think it should have qualified for that. But BEST? What the heck is BEST, anyway?

Now, I can hear loyal readers of this Sunday blog (hi, Mom! Happy Mother’s Day!) ask, “hey wait a minute, Jeff: didn’t you go on like a maniac just a couple of weeks ago about how comic mystery should be on an equal plane with serious mystery, and how it’s unfair that nobody takes into account how hard it is to be good AND funny?” Yes, I said all those things, and I stand by every word (except “AND”: who told it to be in all caps?). But strictly as a mystery novel, stripped of its humor, would DOG be the best of the year? Probably not. It’s good, but it’s not groundbreaking. It doesn’t further the form. It is there to distract, to amuse.

Given the opportunity, would I have voted for AS DOG IS MY WITNESS? That’s a whole different question (which you can tell, based on the fact that it’s a separate sentence, and everything). Sure I would have; I’m no fool. That’s my book, and I worked on it for a long time, and I think it works pretty well and besides, “Gumshoe Award Winner” would have looked nice on my next cover. Do I think other people should have voted for it? Wow, this is getting complicated. What’s “best” is entirely too subjective. Can we have a list of rules please?

It gets back to the argument about comedy being on the same ballot as more “serious” pursuits. If you believe in competition at all–and let’s face it, awards are fun–you have to decide whether there should be separate categories for funny mysteries. I think there should be separate AWARDS for funny mysteries, just to acknowledge the best writers working at making us laugh. But when it comes to a straight discussion of “best,” I think the choice should be open to all genres and tones.

Is YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN a better movie than THE GODFATHER PART II? Probably not. It’s a MUCH funnier one. Should it have been nominated for Best Picture ahead of THE TOWERING INFERNO (yes, THE TOWERING INFERNO was nominated for Best Picture; you can look it up)? Now, there you have me–yes, Mel Brooks’ monster movie is better than Irwin Allen’s. It was probably better than LENNY (another nominee, along with CHINATOWN, which probably should have won), too, and Gene Wilder was miles funnier than Dustin Hoffman.

But this is a little off the point, which started out on this week’s award. I didn’t expect for a moment to win the Gumshoe, but I’m thrilled to pieces to have been nominated. All those cliches you hear are true: being considered among Laura, Reed Farrel Coleman (whose parents should have kept their original last name), Denise Hamilton and Duane Swierczynski is plenty of an honor. The fact that a goofy mystery like DOG was nominated is progress. When I write the Best Mystery of a year, I’ll be seriously ticked off when it doesn’t win. But as for now, I can’t tell you how nice it felt. I hope it feels just as good (or better) the next time I have a book published.

The next time they say “it’s an honor just to be nominated,” and you want to roll your eyes incredulously and comment on what a colossal fib THAT one is, think twice. It really is an honor, and I’m very grateful for it.

Meanwhile, since today is, indeed, Mother’s Day, let’s take a moment to consider and honor those who made the holiday possible. Naturally, I mean the flower and greeting card industries. Without them, we wouldn’t be able to ignore our mothers for 364 days and still feel like we’re good children. Hats off to you, flower and greeting card people!

My own mother (and you should know, if you’re a fan of Freudian slips, that while typing the phrase “own mother”, I almost wrote “owner,” which is creepy) made sure that her young son (that was me) was a fan of books, had plenty of them around the house and, as I recall, never dissuaded me from reading any of them. She has introduced me to some of my favorite authors (thanks for Irwin Shaw, Mom!) and never fails to praise my work beyond realistic limits.

I’m sure that when she reads this post, it will annoy her that I said AS DOG IS MY WITNESS wasn’t the best mystery of the year. For her, it was. And if there’s any greater praise for a mother than that, I don’t know what it is.

10 thoughts on “Here’s Why I Lost

  1. anon

    What is the Gumshoe Award? Is there an organization behind it? Or is it just David Montgomery’s own personal favorites?

    Reply
  2. JT Ellison

    I love that AS DOG IS MY WITNESS was nominated — I think it means you have broken the plane and allowed all types of mysteries to be held up to the same light. Congrats on the nomination, at the very least.And Happy Mother’s Day to all you moms out there. Mine especially!

    Reply
  3. Pari

    Dear Jeff,Speaking as a fellow loser I can say, um, remember, “It’s an honor to be nominated.”

    Actually, I think your take was extremely honest. We don’t write books to get awards; we write to tell stories.

    That both of us write with humor is a choice that means our books might not get considered as serious works.

    That’s fine, though, isn’t it? We’re not in it for recognition via awards; we’re in it for our audiences — and building those audiences one laugh at a time.

    Congrats.

    Reply
  4. Elaine

    I agree, Jeff – there should be a separate award for humorous mysteries. To be lumped in with darker works just doesn’t make much sense to me either. Doesn’t Left Coast Crime have a category?

    And it is an honor ‘just to be nominated’ and I felt the same as you when I got my nod from the Gumshoe folks for my first book.

    The Gumshoe Award, by the way – for ‘Anon’ -is determined by a committee, and not just David Montgomery who will be On The Bubble next Saturday.

    Reply
  5. Jeff Cohen

    I’m with you, Pari. The tricky part is that awards help draw attention to books and widen their audience. So while I certainly don’t write books to win awards–and don’t expect any awards–I do want to reach readers. It’s a conundrum. I am, honestly, honored at the nomination. It’s more than I expected.

    Elaine, LCC does indeed have a separate award for Funniest Mystery (or whatever they call it), the Lefty. I hope someday to be nominated for one of those, as well.

    Reply
  6. David J. Montgomery

    The Gumshoe Awards are given each year by Mystery Ink, of which I’m the editor. (And let me just say, I’m flattered that you know my name!)

    The selected books are chosen by the staff of Mystery Ink, in consultation with various other experts. The awards are an attempt to single out the books that we at Mystery Ink collectively think are most worthy of acclaim.

    It’s an impossible task, and one that always leads to a lot of virtual shouting, cursing, threats, recriminations and attempted blackmail. But we try our best to come up with some truly worthy books.

    Feel free to email me, Anon, if you have more questions. (I don’t want to hog the blog, so to speak.)

    As for Jeff’s comments, I think he’s right. It IS difficult for a light-hearted story to go toe-to-toe with one that’s more “serious.” In the case of DOG, however, it put up one helluva fight!

    Reply
  7. Jeff Cohen

    David, thanks for clearing up the selection procedure–I have to admit, I couldn’t have answered the question. And thanks for your kind comments about DOG. I’m glad it had the chance to be in there punching.

    Reply
  8. toni mcgee causey

    I’m with you, Pari (and Jeff), in that telling the stories is ultimately the point. Next year when mine comes out, I’ll be aware that the humor might make a lot of people take the mystery less seriously, and that’s okay; I mean for the story to be a romp, a caper, a woman who’s desperate to save her brother who happens to be a little bit Terminator, a little bit Tazmanian Devil. πŸ˜‰ Will the book be taken seriously? Dunno. Doesn’t matter if, ultimately, it does the job and makes people laugh for all the right reasons and remember Bobbie Faye when they’re done.

    Great blog (first time posting here).

    Reply
  9. Mark Terry

    So, Jeff, you’re still alive and kickin’. Glad to hear it. Lost touch after I fled DorothyL after some charming member e-mailed me specifically to tell me my last post hadn’t been worth the bandwidth it took up. I decided, since I’m a member of approximately 139 listservs, that was one I could pass on.

    So, my opinion on your not winning The Gumshoe Award: YOU WERE ROBBED, SON! ROBBED!

    Oh, hell, what do I know? I mean, yours is the only book out of those five that I’ve read. I review books and I do manage to read approximately 50 or so a year, which when you consider that there are probably somewhere between 5000 and 10,000 mysteries and/or thrillers published each year out of the 100,000 or so books published in the U.S. alone, would suggest that I COULDN’T POSSIBLY have a sense of who’s really good in the field!

    But I’m sure you’re great. As am I, another writer that could have won year after year if only he were nominated, or, you know, even published in that given year. Which in 2005 I wasn’t! But in 2004 I was! And in 2006 I will be (Oct. 1, 2006, The Devil’s Pitchfork, by Midnight Ink/Llewellyn Worldwide, thank you for sharing your bandwidth, you generous man, you!), but it’s not a mystery, it’s a thriller, and it’s violent and there’s no dogs, but there are monkeys, and it’s not funny, but it could be, if you consider the possibility of Armageddon and a terrorist attack on the White House humorous, and hell, who doesn’t?

    Reply

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