One of the primary goals of the Mystery Writers of America from its inception was "to advance the esteem and literary recognition of the genre." To this end, the Edgar Allan Poe Award was created. Named for the MWA's "patron saint," who is considered by many to have fathered the detective genre, the award was to become the Oscar of mystery writing, honoring the very best the genre had to offer each year. The idea was to give authors who most likely could not dream of winning the prestigious Pulitzer Prize or National Book Award something toward which they could strive and set the bar for all future writers in the field. By further "dignifying the mystery writer," as 1978 MWA Grandmaster Dorothy B. Hughes once put it, the entire genre of mystery literature is enhanced, new authors will be inspired to produce their best work, and ultimately "anything that enhances the author and his work means more money in his pocket." Materialist sentiments, to be sure, but making mystery writing into more of a viable career path than a hobby to be pursued if there is time after working a regular 9-5 job is what allows more and more truly great detective stories to reach the public.
The first Edgar Award winners were presented with leatherbound editions of Poe's writings, produced specially for the occasion by Viking Press The following year, the winners received a special limited edition printing of Art of the Mystery Story, by Howard Haycraft. The bust of Poe now given was designed by Peter Williams, and made its first appearance at the third Edgar Awards banquet. Nominees are all honored with a scroll.
The first Edgars were only given in four categories, Best First Novel, Best Motion Picture, Best Radio Drama, and Outstanding Mystery Criticism. The committee originally did not feel qualified to select a single best novel written in the year, and feared that selecting one might cause other established authors to leave the organization. They changed their minds in 1953, and presented Charlotte Jay the first Best Novel Award for her book Beat Not the Bones. Over the years, the Edgars have evolved further to meet the changing needs of the genre. In 1952, a category was added for Best Crime-Mystery Television Show, and until recently, outstanding work in the theater was awarded Special Edgars (created to reward work outside of any of the established categories). Best Play is now a permanent category of its own, although in some years, there are no nominations. Special Edgars have been given for everything from the original creation of the Edgar Award bust to the macabre cartoons of Charles Addams to the creators of such memorable characters as Dick Tracy.
It was Clayton Rawson, writer, editor, and one of the founding fathers of the MWA, who first came up with the idea of having a banquet to honor the award winners. In the beginning, the group attracted audiences with skits written and produced by notable members of the MWA, including authors William Roos, Hal Mansur, Clayton Rawson, and even a Sherlock Holmes parody by John Dickson Carr. They soon realized, however, that the gala event didn't need the skits to continue to be successful. Illustrated invitations and banquet program covers have been contributed by the likes of Charles Addams and Edward Gorey, and numerous celebrities have attended, from Bela Lugosi, to Eleanor Roosevelt, to, oddly enough, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The 1956 dinner even included a private premiere of a new television series called The Mystery Writers Theater, the source material for which all came from the MWA. The event has grown from a single night of awards and entertainment to encompass several days of activities, often called "Edgars Week," including workshops and panel discussions with the people at the top of the mystery field.
Mystery Writers of America. The Mystery Writers of America Web Site. <http://www.mysterywriters.org/> (December 17, 2002)
Updated January 31, 2003: Added year links