Mystery novels can be entertaining, suspenseful and a chance for pure escape.
But they're more than page turners. Mystery writers Louise Penny and Trudy Nan Boyce, this year's winners of the coveted Pinckley Prizes for Crime Fiction, dig into tough contemporary issues.
“Crime fiction is kind of the new social commentary — (Penny) really takes on the opioid crisis in her new book, and (Boyce) writes about the legacy of race in the present day,” said Susan Larson, longtime local book writer and administrator of the Pinckley Prize committee, the New Orleans organization that honors two female mystery writers a year.
Established in 2012, the Pinckley Prizes recognize the works of women writers of crime fiction, a passion of the late Diana Pinckley, who wrote about mysteries for The Times-Picayune for many years. The winners are nominated and selected by members of the Women's National Book Association of New Orleans, composed of writers, librarians, publishers and booklovers.
The WNBA of New Orleans will present the 2017 prizes at 6 p.m. Friday, Sept. 8, at the Nims Fine Arts Center at the Academy of the Sacred Heart, 4301 St. Charles Ave. Honorees net $2,500 and a trip to the Crescent City to receive their prize.
Winner of the prize for distinguished body of work, Penny is one of the best-selling mystery writers in the world today and will make her first appearance in New Orleans at the event. Judges chose Penny, a native of Canada, for her "Inspector Gamache" series and her creation of the imaginary village of Three Pines.
“Her books evoke a strong sense of place, as well as a commitment to examining contemporary moral issues in all their complexity,” Larson said. “Inspector Gamache is one of the great fictional detectives in his commitment to Canada, to his home, to police work, to rooting out corruption. One of Louise's mantras is ‘Goodness exists,’ and that is why people love her work so much.”
According to Larson, Penny’s works routinely debut at the top of The New York Times bestseller lists.
Boyce, a former Special Victims Unit and homicide detective, won the prize for her debut novel, “Out of the Blues,” about fictional homicide detective Sarah Alt. Set in Atlanta, the work deals with contemporary challenges in policing and the complex history of the city.
“Boyce has created an exemplary woman who refuses to step away from protecting and serving the people of her city, even when her own life is at risk,” said Larson. “Her Atlanta is filled with the blues, with racial division, all the issues that face Southern cities. (Boyce) draws on her own experience as a homicide detective, SVU detective, commander and hostage negotiator for compelling details.”
Larson noted that both writers’ novels rely on a strong sense of place — fictional for Penny, actual for Boyce — to provide more than a backdrop for the story lines. Penny’s town of Three Pines and Boyce’s Atlanta are characters in the stories. Both writer had professional careers before they began writing, Penny with CBC Radio and Boyce on the police force.
When Penny learned she would be awarded a Pinckley Prize, she wrote, “I am overjoyed … And what amazing company — all women whose works I admire and enjoy. All trailblazers in an industry we love. As was Diana.”
Winners of past Pinckley Prizes for Crime Fiction, distinguished body of work, are Laura Lippman, Nevada Barr and Sara Paretsky. Winners for debut novel are Gwen Florio, Adrianne Harun and Christine Carbo.
Tickets to the award ceremony are $32 (octaviabooks.com) and will be exchanged at the event for a copy of Penny’s most recent work, “Glass Houses.”