New York Story

by Stephen Ross
First Published: Criminal Brief, May 9, 2011 READ


Back in January of this year, I got an email that informed me I had gotten an Edgar nomination for best short story. I stared at the email, and then made a sound that fell somewhere in the vocal range around Flipper.

Three months later, and I was staring at the shoe of a flight attendant. We had just lifted off for a long haul across the Pacific (I live in New Zealand), and the flight attendant was seated opposite me. Rule #1 for air travel: for maximum legroom, always request the front-of-section seating option. The attendant was unconsciously tapping a steady beat with his heel, while staring out the aircraft window.

I am an uncomfortable flyer, and nervous ticks in flight crews trouble me. So, I did what any brave, grown adult would do. I went into complete denial. I mentally went back to my desk to work on my current short story. I went straight back into the problem solving. Coincidentally, the story is set in New York City, which, on account of the Edgars, was my journey’s eventual destination—when Edgar calls, you come.

Stephen Ross, Mary Higgins Clark, and Doug Allyn at the Edgar Banquet

I had never been to New York before. My time in the US had so far only taken place out on the west coast. Sure, I knew New York. I had seen it in the movies a million times. From King Kong and the Empire State Building to the slimy Times Square of the 70s in Taxi Driver. From the aerial shot that opens Ridley Scott’s Someone to Watch Over Me (and the mystical Chrysler Building), to Jack Lemmon and Judy Holliday falling in love in black and white in Central Park.

And then walking along Broadway on Tuesday, counting down the Avenues to the Brooklyn Bridge, I realised I knew nothing. Not a damn thing. A city is more than a glimpse in a movie, it’s more than a Google Street View, it’s more than background fill in someone’s novel. It is. And unless you be there, you don’t know the is of it. And the legend engraved into every writer’s bedpost is and ought to be: write what you know.

One thing I do know is that crime writers are the nicest people on the planet. On Wednesday, for the first time, I met three of the Criminal Brief gang: James, Melodie, and Steve. And they welcomed me with such warmth I felt like an old friend. We went to dinner at the Round Table Room at the Algonquin, along with writers Linda Lou Long and Charles Todd. It was a great setting. Good food, good wine, good company.

You can smell the history of writing in the Round Table Room. It’s like cigarette smoke that lurks, and no amount of cleaning and scrubbing will ever get it out. A better analogy would probably have been ghosts, but you get the idea, and thinking about it, I bet it took them decades to scrape out the actual smoke tar from the ceiling from just the 1920s alone. When did writers stop smoking? It doesn’t seem right. It’s the same with typewriters.

Stephen Ross, Doug Allyn, and Jeffery Deaver at the Edgar Banquet

That night I slept with the hotel window open. I had a view of the roof of Grand Central. I let the drone and bubbling of the city drift into my room. If I was going to set a story in this town I had to get it right. I had to Hoover up all of Manhattan into my head. Its sights, its sounds, even its smells.

And the winner is: The Scent of Lilacs, Doug Allyn, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine.

So, Doug won the Edgar for best short story. This was Doug’s second Edgar, and years ago, he was one of the first to reel in the Robert L. Fish award.

Let me describe Doug Allyn: Doug is a gentleman. He walked up to the podium with a confidence and maturity that I’ll never possess, and he gave a speech that was eloquent and witty. Had I won, by contrast, I’d have made an utter fool of myself.

Don’t get me wrong, I would have gladly sauntered up to the podium like a jackass and stuttered and started, and tripped up over names, and dribbled saliva, but it wasn’t to be.

And then I was back in denial, on a long haul home, and back firmly in my New York story: thinking about it, reworking it, rewording it. Baby, it has to change.

And if I don’t ever get another shot at an Edgar, I’ll be happy with the memory of standing in the dimly lit, Pre-Edgars cocktail party—the reception for the nominees—and thinking: how in the world did I get so damn lucky to be standing there?