Photo :John Hart and his wife, Katie
THE HONEST TRUTH IS THAT AWARDS dinners, regardless of their glitzy venue or high-minded purpose, are generally rather tedious affairs. Unless you are a nominee for best widget salesman of the year or among the honored guests awaiting a plaque and induction into the Doo-Wop Hall of Fame, sitting through lengthy speeches, making small talk with Bob from Detroit, politely picking at the secret-meat entree and applauding the recognition of others aren’t exactly karaoke night out with your buddies.
Ah, but there are exceptions.
Recently in New York City, members of the Mystery Writers of America put on their tuxes and gowns and paid homage to fellow authors whose works had been judged the year’s best. Out in Hollywood, they call them the Oscars, and in the music industry they’re Grammys. In mystery-writing circles, the highest form of flattery is to be named winner of the Edgar, a nifty little porcelain likeness of the legendary Edgar Allan Poe.
And, boy, do they do it up right. For an unabashed devotee of the genre, attending the Edgars is like being allowed full access to the dugout during Major League Baseball’s All-Star Weekend. New York Times best-sellers Michael Connelly and Harlan Coben were chatting. Mary Higgins Clark was sitting just a few tables over. R.L. Stine, who at last count had sold 300 million copies of his spooky books for kids, was onstage, handing out one of the coveted trophies. Award-winning Laura Lippman was the emcee. What I’m saying is the place was a wall-to-wall Who’s Who of Whodunits.
And among the crowd was the genre’s newest luminary, a young writer so gifted that he’s raised the bar to Olympic heights after writing only three novels. If you’re a mystery fan and haven’t yet heard of Salisbury, N.C., criminal defense lawyer– turned-author John Hart, you soon will. As we say in the trade, this guy’s on fire.
His debut novel, The King of Lies, was among the finalists for the Best First Novel Edgar. His second, Down River, was honored as the Best Novel. Then, recently, he was back on stage, receiving another Edgar for The Last Child. Three novels, three nominations. Back-to-back Edgars for his last two nods in 2008 and 2010. There may have never been such a streak in the 65-year history of the award.
Book lovers should be delighted that Hart hated being a lawyer. And that his wife, Katie, was a lovingly honest critic back when his urge to write was born.
Sitting in the Grand Hyatt lobby, he reflected on bygone days. In his spare time, between arguing the cases of evildoers he loathed, he wrote a couple of not-so-good, neverpublished books filled with gun battles, car chases and stuff getting blown up. Katie, whose reading taste generally runs to whatever Oprah suggests, rolled her eyes and candidly called them “comic book-y.” Where was the emotional tie for the reader? Where was the evocative setting, the character she could care about? Why wasn’t he writing about places and people more familiar to him? For her to embrace a book, she said, the storyteller had to provide depth and memorable description. Run-and-gun plots weren’t her cup of tea.
Arguing the cases of society’s dregs wasn’t his.
“Our first daughter was only five weeks old when I was court-appointed to represent a child molester,” he recalls. “That case provided me the excuse I’d been looking for.” He informed his client, a stunned judge and his bewildered law-firm partners that he was changing careers, effective immediately.
Thus, the guy who majored in French literature as an undergrad, got a master’s degree in accounting, and then went off to law school found his way into the crapshoot business of being a full-time writer.
At age 35, he went back to the drawing board in hopes of pleasing his lone critic. “I finally had enough of The King of Lies on paper to ask her to read it,” he remembers. The book’s setting was his own neighborhood, the characters drawn from people he knew, the dark story line loosely based on an actual event.
Katie excused herself to another room while he waited for her response. “John,” she would later say, “you will never work another day job in your life.” Clearly, she knows her stuff. Her husband’s next stop: glowing reviews, international best-seller lists, translations into 26 languages and the ongoing flood of honors in the last decade.
Today, Hart’s style is lyrical, honest and haunting, his books not easily forgotten. Call them mysteries if you like, but only if you judge Harper Lee’s legendary To Kill a Mockingbird or Thomas H. Cook’s marvelous Breakheart Hill to be mysteries. Hart writes finely plotted, eloquently crafted books that defy any literary pigeonhole.
As her husband stood before an applauding crowd, another Edgar in hand, Katie Hart’s proud smile filled the room.
Now that he has two of the coveted statuettes, one hopes he will consider giving one to the wise lady who pointed the way — along with a heartfelt thanks from us all.