I knew I wanted an Edgar Award back in 1961, when my good friend Don Westlake failed to win one.
He’d just published The Mercenaries, and it was nominated for an Edgar for Best First Mystery. Someone else took home the statuette (for what was in fact a first mystery by a veteran science-fiction writer, which made it eligible under the letter if not the spirit of the rule), and we all assured Don that it was honor enough to be nominated, and he pretended to believe us. We don’t need to feel sorry for the man, though; he has a whole shelf full of those porcelain busts now, plus a sheaf of nominations. Anyway, this isn’t about him.
It’s about me.
I began publishing paperback original crime novels in 1961 and hardcovers a few years later. And while I can’t say I was obsessed with the idea of winning an Edgar, I had my hopes. One book I published in the mid-1970s, under a pen name (Chip Harrison) that was also the name of the book’s narrator, was dedicated “To Barbara Bonham, Newgate Callendar, John Dickson Carr, and the Edgar Awards Committee of the Mystery Writers of America.” Barbara Bonham was the chief fiction reviewer for Publishers Weekly. Newgate Callendar was the pen name that music critic Harold Schonberg used for his crime column in the New York Times Book Review. And John Dickson Carr, master of the locked room, reviewed mysteries for Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine.
I was shameless, and to no avail. Well, not much avail anyway. The book got a mention in the Callendar column, where its dedication was quoted and its literary merits overlooked. Carr and Bonham paid no attention, and when Edgar time rolled around, Chip Harrison was left out in the cold.
But a year or so later one of my Matthew Scudder novels, Time to Murder and Create, picked up a nomination for Best Paperback Original. I went to the dinner somehow convinced I was going to win, and I didn’t. Someone else did. I sat there stunned, barely able to assure people that it was honor enough merely to be nominated.
A couple of years later I was nominated again, this time for Eight Million Ways to Die, short-listed for Best Novel. “Honor enough to be nominated,” I muttered and went home.
It took years for me to realize what was holding me back. It was, quite simply, a curse.
The curse of Amontillado.
I realized the precise dimensions of this curse only recently, when Charles Ardai was editing an early pseudonymous book of mine for his “Hard Case Crime” imprint. He pointed out that I’d referred to “The Cask of Amontillado” as having been written by Robert Louis Stevenson. Gently he asked if my attributing Poe’s story to Stevenson was deliberate, indicating something subtle about the character who’d made the error.
The mistake, I replied, was not the character’s but my own, and he should by all means correct it.
And not a moment too soon. Because it was clearly responsible for a long train of misfortunes.
This misattribution, I must confess, was not an isolated slip-ofthe-keyboard confined to a single forgettable book. While that may have been the only time I publicly handed Poe’s classic tale to Stevenson, I’d been confused about its authorship ever since I read the story. Which, if memory serves (and you can already tell what ill service it tends to provide), came about in the seventh grade, some fifty-seven years ago.
One of our textbooks in English class was a small blue volume of short stories, one of which was “The Cask of Amontillado,” and one was something by Stevenson. (I seem to recall the title of the Stevenson story as “The Master of Ballantrae,” but that’s impossible, because that’s the title of a novel. So I don’t know what the Stevenson story may have been, and, God forgive me, I don’t care either.)
I don’t know what else I may have retained from the seventh grade, but one thing I held on to was that story, “The Cask of Amontillado.”
“For the love of God, Montresor!”
“Yes,” I said, “for the love of God!”
They don’t write ’em like that anymore, and I knew that even then. But somehow I got it into my head that the author’s initials were R.L.S., not E.A.P. Now and then it would come up in conversation, and someone would say I meant Poe, didn’t I? And I’d say yes, of course, and stand corrected-but not for long, because my memory remained inexplicably loyal to Stevenson.
Well, really. Where did I get off looking to win an Edgar? If the Red Sox could go that long without a World Series win just because their cheapjack owner let go of Babe Ruth, what did I expect?
And then, of course, everything changed.
Because I started keeping company with a young woman named Lynne Wood.
And why, you may ask, should that serve to lift the curse of Amontillado? Perhaps the answer will become clear when I tell you that the maiden name of Ms. Wood’s mother, Emilie, was Poe.
She was not the first person I’d met with that surname. Back in the eighth grade, a mere year after I’d read about Montresor and the ill-named Fortunato, I had a classmate named William Poe. His family had just moved north from Alabama, and that made him an exotic creature indeed at PS 66 in Buffalo, New York. We teased him relentlessly about his accent-and I wouldn’t be surprised if that helped reinforce the curse, now that I think about it. I don’t know that anyone asked if he was related to the Poe, but he very likely would have answered that he was, because they all are. The Poes, that is.
Of course, none of them are direct descendants of Edgar Allan, because the poor fellow had no living issue. But he has plenty of collateral descendants, and one of them was named Emilie, and she had a daughter named Lynne.
Reader, I married her.
And within the year my short story “By the Dawn’s Early Light” was nominated for an Edgar. Lynne and I attended what I’d come to term the Always-A-Bridesmaid Dinner, but this time I went home with a porcelain bust of my bride’s great-great-great-etc.-uncle.
It has, I blush to admit, been joined by others in the years that followed. Coincidence?
I don’t think so.