The Crime Writers of Canada –
How it all began
By Tony Aspler, founding President
In the summer of 1982 seven men with criminal intent met in Dooley’s bar, a suitably insalubrious downtown Toronto watering hole for what we had in mind. The co-conspirators were the late Derrick Murdoch, mystery reviewer for The Toronto Star, British novelist Tim Heald, book reviewer, the late Doug Marshall, editor John Pearce, authors Howard Engel, Larry Morse and myself. The noise in the establishment was such that we were driven out to the more lofty and salubrious surroundings of the rooftop bar in the Park Plaza.
The purpose of the meeting was to form an association of crime writers modeled on the Crime Writers of Great Britain. Although my genre at the time was political thrillers (I co-wrote three with Gordon Pape – ‘Chain Reaction’, ‘The Scorpion Sanction’ and ‘The Music Wars’) I was voted by default, to be the first President of the fledgling Crime Writers of Canada.
The Arthur Ellis Awards
For the first year we met monthly in a room at the Toronto Reference Library, a fitting venue since it houses one of the world's foremost collections of library materials devoted to the life and works of Arthur Conan Doyle. At those early meetings we would invite an expert in different aspects of crime – cops, forensic scientists, criminal lawyers, etc. Eddie Greenspan was one of our guests whom we subsequently co-opted into presenting the Arthur Ellis Awards. These awards were named after the nom de travail of Canada’s hangmen. The wooden statuettes (a condemned man on a gibbet whose arms and legs flail when you pull a string – considered by some to be in execrable taste) were designed under the supervision of Tim Wynn-Jones, who subsequently retreated from the crime fold to write children’s books. (See note below)
The first recipient of the Arthur Ellis Award, in those days a single prize for the best novel published the previous year, was won by Eric Wright for ‘The Night The Gods Smiled,’ beating out works by William Deverell and Ted Wood. Next year it was Howard Engel for his second Benny Cooperman novel, ‘The Ransom Game.’ Both Eric and Howard would in turn ascend the throne of the Presidency of the Crime Writers of Canada. We used to publish a quarterly newsletter called ‘Fingerprints’ and the first item was the President’s letter, titled ‘Speech from the Throne.’
For my part, I returned to pure crime fiction with ‘Titanic’ and a series of Ezra Brant wine murder mysteries, ‘Blood Is Thicker Than Beaujolais’, ‘The Beast of Barbaresco’ and ‘Death on the Douro.’
A note on Arthur by Tim Wynn-Jones
I'm happy to clarify Arthur's history. It was my job to head the committee, as Tony said. And my big contribution, as far as I'm concerned, was in realizing that a book prize is kind of a stage prop. The darn thing should look good in somebody's hands as well as on their mantel. So I thought to go to a stage designer, Peter Blais, who happened also to be a wonderful actor, and who happened to be someone I had acted with and knew to have a wicked sense of humour. He got it! He understood what I was trying to say and came up with the jumping jack. So Peter very much deserves the kudos for Arthur and I'm just pleased to have got him on board. It's the best prize around, as far as I'm concerned. I'm lucky enough to have won one and also to have won an Edgar and Arthur beats Edgar all to heck!
The Award for Best Unpublished First Crime Novel
Initiated by Louise Penny, the first Award for Best Unpublished was awarded by the Crime Writers of Canada in 2007 as part of the CWC mandate to recognize and promote the careers of promising new crime writers. The first winner was Phyllis Smallman for Margarita Nights, a book that was later shortlisted for Best First Novel. The competition is open to (1) Canadian citizens, no matter where they are living, and to writers, regardless of nationality, who have Permanent Resident status in Canada, and (2) who have never had a novel of any kind published commercially.
The Lou Allin Memorial Award
Sponsored by the 2011 Bloody Words Conference Committee, this award will be given in honour of Lou Allin from 2015 to 2019. Lou was a board member of CWC, a co-chair of the 2011 Bloody Words Conference, an award-winning writer, and a mentor to many. This award was particularly fitting, as she was the winner of the first Arthur Ellis Novella Award. We miss you dearly, Lou. Although the Lou Allin Memorial Award is over, Myystery Weekly Magazine has taken over the sponsorship of the novella category.
The Howard Engel Award for Best Crime Novel Set in Canada
Howard Engel was one of the founders of Crime Writers of Canada, a prolific author, former CBC producer, and the inaugural recipient of the CWC Grand Master Award. His books were among the first mysteries to be set in Canada, back in a time when English language crime fiction was only set in the Britain of the United States.
The Crime Writers of Canada Awards of Excellence
The Brass Knuckles Award for Best Crime Nonfiction
Sometimes we find out about someone who should have been a member too late. Such is the case of true-crime author Robert Gordon Knuckle (1935-2019). Fortunately, he had a CWC member who felt the same way and set up the sponsorship of the Best Crime Nonfiction award in his name.
The Whodunit Award for Best Traditional Mystery