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Field Notes - Pushing Crime
by David Skene-Melvin

IT'S 1982 and crime writing is booming, even in Canada. Enough so that maybe there's some sense in having a national association of crime writers and supporters. And who better to organize it than Derrick Murdoch, for 20 years a reviewer of crime fiction for the Globe and Mail? He knows who's guilty of writing the stuff.

So Murdoch gathers together all the usual suspects in one of Toronto's more salubrious watering-holes. Obviously the ambience was inspiring, for the Crime Writers of Canada was formed, as Canada's national association of authors of crime fiction (crime, detective, espionage, mystery, suspense, and thriller), both novels and short stories; true crime; and genre criticisin/reference, either books or articles. The CWC also extended its membership to agents, editors, publishers, specialty booksellers, and teachers of post-secondary courses on the genre.

The timing was appropriate. Not only was crime writing flourishing, but work of a recognizably Canadian stamp was at last acceptable: Canada's crime writers no longer had to masquerade as British or American and set their tales in either London or New York. By the early 1 80s, editors, even British and American ones, were accepting that a Canadian locale wouldn't put the kibosh on a book.

Starting small, with the Toronto chapter as a nucleus, the CWC quickly spread nationwide and, to keep its scattered membership in touch, founded a newsletter, Fingerprints, which has managed to come out at least once every year since.

The CWC is organized in regional chapters, each of which holds regular meetings that feature speakers on topics of interest to crime writers. (The next time we have a forensic pathologist present a slide show I'll cat afterward, if I still have an appetite, not before.)

Created as a kind of manufacturers' association to promote its members' goods, the organization publicizes Canadian crime fiction with its Arthur Ellis Awards, surpassed in literary prestige in Canada only by the Governor General's Awards. The "Arthurs," named after the nom de travail of Canada's official hangman, are given annually for the best book published in the preceding year by a writer resident in Canada or a Canadian writer resident abroad in the categories of best crime novel by a previously published novelist; first crime novel (by a previously unpublished novelist); short story; true crime; genre criticism/reference; and juvenile. At the discretion of the president, there may also be awarded the Derrick Murdoch Award, named in memory of Canada's premier crime-fiction reviewer, for lifetime achievement or outstanding contribution to the genre.

The Arthur Ellis Awards started in 1984 with a single award for best novel, but the addition of other categories followed: a prize for true crime in 1985; one for best first novel in 1987; best short story the following year; in 1990, genre criticism/reference; and last year, writing for juveniles was added. As the boundaries of "crime writing" expand, so will the categories.

But it's not enough just to recognize excellence among one's peers: you have to get the goods known in the market. So the CWC annually publishes In Cold Blood: A Directory of Criminous Works, an anthology by members, and distributes it nationally and internationally to all specialty mystery bookstores and to anyone else who would like a copy, as well as to all registrants at BoucherCon, the annual world mystery convention.

The CWC offers a Speakers Bureau, which can bring murder and mayhem to your next meeting, be it reading club, writers' group, or private gathering looking for after-dinner entertainment. It can also supply lively panel discussions, informative workshops, and "murder mystery" evenings in which you, the audience, are the detective.

So how do you latch on to all this good stuff? The address of the Crime Writers of Canada is: 225 Carlton Street, Toronto, Ontario M5A 2L2, and it can he reached by phone at (416) 962-7947. (Sorry, no fax as yet. Maybe with Our next royalties.)


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