I’m off to Toronto next week for the Arthur Ellis Awards Gala. It’s an annual event held by the Crime Writers of Canada, celebrating the best mystery books of the past year in several categories including “Best Juvenile or YA Crime Book.” I’ve been lucky enough to win in that category twice before, for The Boy in the Burning House, in 2000, and Blink and Caution in 2012. I’m up against some stiff competition this year, including Linwood Barclay, a favourite thriller writer of mine. Escape is Barclay’s first foray into juvenile crime fiction. The list also includesMichelle Barker for The House of One Thousand Eyes, Kevin Sands for Call of the Wraith, and E. R. Yatscoff for the Rumrunner’s Boy. My own short-listed book is The Ruinous Sweep. I’ve got my fingers crossed!
My own connection to the CWC goes back almost to the very beginning. Long before I won an “Arthur” I had an intimate relationship with him, shall we say. But before I go into that, let me tell you about the man whose name appears on the trophy. Arthur Ellis was the nom de travail of Canada’s hangman, when we used to do that kind of thing. Which, you might be surprised to know was as recently as 1962. On December eleventh of that year two men were hung for two different murders at the Don Jail in Toronto. I guess that would be a busy day in the life of a hangman. The whole idea gives me the shakes. Canada still had a hangman on the payroll until 1976, when parliament voted to abolish the death penalty and only by a slim margin, 130-124. Scary to think about.
So how did Arthur and I become acquainted? Well, I never met the man – not as far as I know, anyway. After all, Arthur Ellis wasn’t his real name. Maybe he was that weird guy next door, the one who never got around to telling you what he did for a living? Anyway, my fellow crime writers entrusted me with the job of coming up with a suitable trophy for crime writing. The British Crime Writers had their “Silver Dagger,” the Yanks had their “Edgar,” named after Mr. Poe. And we had “Arthur.” When I started thinking of what awards were supposed to be, I thought of the Oscar and that endless parade of winners clutching the prize as they blubbered their thankyous. For one precious moment, I figured, a prize is a kind of stage prop. It needed to look good in somebody’s hand as well as on their mantel. So I thought, why not get a stage designer to come up with one? And I knew just the guy. Peter Blais was, at the time, an artist/actor/designer and just an all-around creative guy. Full disclosure, he beat me in an art competition in grade five. When we met again a million years later, I forgave him for winning; we were performing in a show together and, man, did he have a wicked sense of humour. He got it! He knew the kind of thing I wanted. Here’s the CWC’s first president, Tony Aspler, describing the wooden statuette that Peter Blais came up with: “a condemned man on a gibbet whose arms and legs flail when you pull the string – considered by some to be in execrable taste.” You bet! But a lot more fun than most prizes. I’m hoping I’ll get another chance to pull that string on May 23rd!