The Grand Master

Vincent Starrett and the MWA

I was roaming around eBay several years ago and came across an ad for an unusual object related to Vincent Starrett. Up for auction was Starrett’s membership card for the Mystery Writers of America Inc. for 1945-6. I was the successful bidder and here’s the card itself.

Clayton Rawson, a founder of the MWA, signed Starrett's membership card.

I have since had the card framed (as you can see here) and was looking at it the other day. I do this when I want to avoid working, except this time, I thought it might be fun to look at Starrett’s relationship to the MWA, whose slogan, “Crime Doesn’t Pay — Enough!” always makes me chuckle.

By the time the MWA was founded in 1945, Starrett’s career as a mystery writer was largely behind him. His popularity in detective fiction came in the teens, 20s and 30s but faded when he felt his style of ratiocinative story telling was overshadowed by the hard boiled school.  Nonetheless, his reputation as both a writer and advocate for the genre and its practitioners had taken hold.

Mystery and detective stories were still looked down on by many critics and some readers, perhaps because of the genre's pulp past. The MWA was a means to bring recognition and respect to the best writers in the field — not to mention a way to organize for better pay from publishers.

The MWA says it was “established in 1945 by a dozen or so like-minded mystery writers for the purpose of promoting and protecting the interest and welfare of mystery writers and to increase the esteem and literary recognition given to the genre.” Other sources, however, note that four men were most important in the establishment of the group: Clayton Rawson, Anthony Boucher, Lawrence Treat, and Brett Halliday. (We’ll come back to Tony Boucher in a future article.)

As you can see, it was Rawson who signed Starrett’s membership card and acted as the group’s treasurer. Rawson was an illustrator and writer who lived most of his adult life in Chicago, so was likely an acquaintance of Starrett’s. (It seemed the Last Bookman knew everyone who was anyone in the Chicago writing scene.) And Rawson was a mystery writer in his own right. He was the author of several short stories and a handful of novels about The Great Merlini, a magician detective. (We must ask Dan Stashower about that some day.)

And, as you can see from his membership card, Starrett was an early member, having signed up during its first year.

 

Starrett took his Edgar with him to a television studio in 1964. For more on the event, go here. By the way, the little statue of Poe was designed by Peter Williams and produced by Louise Larabee.

In 1958, the MWA decided to honor Starrett with the designation of Grand Master. (NOTE: While the citation quoted below indicates that Starrett was the first Grand Master, the MWA itself says that Agatha Christie was named a Grand Master in 1955 three years earlier. Go figure.)

First or not, the title was still rare. Today we refer to someone as a Grand Master of the MWA (as "Ellery Queen" did in the citation), but news accounts were still using a lower case for the designation, showing it had yet to be recognized as the mystery equivalent of the Tony or Oscar.

Here’s the 1958 citation for Starrett, written by “Ellery Queen” and reprinted in Starrett’s 1965 memoir, Born in a Bookshop:

“This year (1958), for the first time we honor one of the Grand Masters in our field, and by the unanimous vote of the board of Directors of MWA the first recipient of this award is Vincent Starrett. Who among us has a more distinguished record in so many different facets of our work? Vincent Starrett has earned our respect, admiration, and affection as a detective novelist and short-story writer; as one of our foremost historians and critics; as a poet and anthologist; as an essayist and columnist who has made a fine art of writing about books and bookmen; as an explorer in bibliography and a discoverer in book collecting; as a Sherlockophile and connoisseur without peer—as, indeed, the noblest gentleman-and-scholar in our ranks. All honor to his accomplishments and undeviating integrity!”

The news of Starrett’s award received attention both in New York, where the MWA dinner was held, and in his adopted hometown of Chicago.

A clip from the Chicago Daily Tribune for April 27, 1958.

Tony Boucher himself used his periodic column on mysteries in The New York Times to note that Starrett took a special honor at the dinner, held at Toots Shor’s nightclub. Calling it “an award that most particularly delights me,” Boucher reported that “a special unclassified Edgar to Vincent Starrett” was granted “as a grand master of mystery writing who has made great contributions to that field.”

“Those, at least, are the words of the awards committee," says Boucher. "I’d like to add that though Starrett is a good and sometimes a very good writer (“The Eleventh Juror” is a nearly-faultless mystery classic), he is an almost uniquely great bookman: a communicator of enthusiasm and understanding and love of books. His books-about-books (for a checklist, see your librarian) have been major props in sustaining not only the mystery story but the very joy of reading, as an art in itself.”

In his hometown paper, fellow Chicago Daily Tribune book reviewer Harry Hanson reported on the MWAs and noted that Rex Stout “had a surprise to spring: an Edgar and an honorable citation to Chicago’s Vincent Starrett for his superior writing and understanding of mystery fiction and his lifelong career as critic and interpreter of this genre.”  After noting there were several awards for mystery writers, “it was evident that Starrett’s was the best known and most highly approved award, recognition of his sound judgment, urbanity and wide knowledge of the field.”

The Grand Master award was not Starrett’s last association with the MWA. He was elected president of the group in 1961, an honor he wore with pride.


One more thought before we close out.

As part of the Ellery Queen Masterpieces of Mystery series, a volume was published in 1976 called The Grand Masters. In his introduction, Queen recalls being present in March 1945 at the apartment of legendary literary agent Marie Rodell with several others who agreed to create to the MWA. Frederick Dannay acknowledges it was he who was at this meeting representing "Ellery Queen."

In the volume of stories honoring the Grand Masters, Starrett receives place of honor in the No. 1 spot, with his tale, "The Tragedy of Papa Posnard." The introductory page about Starrett is reprinted here. You'll notice that Queen says that "His The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1933) is considered by most critics the best book ever written about the Master Detective."

We shall have more—much more—to say about Queen and his opinions about TPLOSH next time.