by ZJ Czupor

She Won the Edgar and Didn’t Know What it Was

1946 was a seminal year.

It was the beginning of the Baby Boomer Generation.

Harry Truman was our president.

Not unlike today, people worried about major shortages in jobs and shortages in housing, especially for those returning from WWII.

Winston Churchill gave his famous “Iron Curtain” speech in Fulton, MO.

Cher and Jimmy Buffet were born, along with Ted Bundy, Freddie Mercury, Dolly Parton, Steven Spielberg, Sylvester Stallone, George W. Bush, and Donald J. Trump.

The ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer) was unveiled at the Univ. of Pennsylvania as the first general-purpose electronic computer. It ran on 18,000 vacuum tubes and several miles of wiring. It took up 1,800 square feet and weighed 27 tons.

AT&T announced the first car phones. They weighed 80 pounds and were marketed to companies rather than individuals.

Tupperware was sold in department stores and hardware stores and the bikini went on sale July 5th in Paris. The risqué two-piece swimming suit took its name from the recent atomic testing done by the U.S. at Bikini Atoll, a coral reef in the Marshall Islands.

Also, in late 1946, in New York City, The Edgar was born.

Mystery Writers of America announced its first Edgar awards in New York City. But there was no banquet. The announcement was made in the form of a news release. The Edgar statue would not exist until the third year (1949). Instead, the awards handed out were a leather-bound edition of The Portable Poe. Only fifteen copies were printed and distributed.

Edgar winners that year were for:

  • Best First Mystery Novel to Julius Fast (1919-2008) for Watchful at Night (Farrar & Rinehart, 1945).
  • Best Motion Picture went to Murder My Sweet (1944) written by John Paxton (1911-1985) and based on the novel Farewell My Lovely (Alfred A. Knopf, 1940) by Raymond Chandler (1888-1959); and
  • Best Mystery Criticism was awarded to Anthony Boucher (1911-1968) for his reviews at the San Francisco Chronicle.

The first awards banquet was held the following year in April at the Henry Hudson Hotel in New York City.

And, herein, we enter into some confusion about the Edgar awards.

You’ll recall, I just said the Best First Mystery Novel went to Julius Fast in 1946. However, in the ensuing years, several articles were written claiming that Charlotte Jay won the first Edgar award for Best Mystery Novel. But according to MWA records, Charlotte won the first Edgar for Best Novel in 1954, the year that the Best Novel award was established.

Perhaps because Charlotte was an Australian writer, or because the Edgars were still relatively in their infancy, when she won she said she didn’t know what the Edgar was. But she was a deserving winner.

Charlotte Jay was a trailblazing author who only published nine mystery novels all set in exotic locations. And while she was considered one of the best suspense writers of her era she has unfortunately slipped into near obscurity.

Charlotte Jay was the pseudonym of Australian writer Geraldine Mary Jay (1919-1996) who was born in 1919 in Adelaide, South Australia. Jay said she chose her pseudonym because “Jay” was a family name, and she thought the name “Charlotte” sounded literary.

She graduated from the University of Adelaide and then worked for twelve years as a shorthand typist in Australia and England, and as a court stenographer in Papua New Guinea before she took up writing as a serious vocation.

Her first novel, The Knife is Feminine (1951), was set in Sydney, Australia but was never published in Australia. Collins, her London publisher, promoted the novel on the book’s front cover as “New thrills by a new author.”

But it was her second novel that brought her notoriety. Beat Not the Bones (Harper, 1952) is this novel awarded the Edgar by Mystery Writers of America.

Beat Not the Bones follows Stella Warwick who travels to the fictional island of Marapai, off the coast of New Guinea, to investigate the supposed suicide of her anthropologist husband. Stella believes her husband was murdered. There are several possible suspects including a tribe that practices witchcraft in an area where her husband discovered gold. Stella ventures deep into the jungle in search of the truth.

The San Francisco Chronicle said, “This might easily scare you out of your wits. Extremely well-handled mystery, authentic horror and atmosphere that closes in like jungle heat.”

The New York Times Book Review said, “Charlotte Jay works you up to the revelation of a horrible secret, and the secret turns out to be the horrible surprise you hoped it would be.”

Jay said when she won the Edgar she didn’t know what the award was, but it later dawned on her that her adventure novel was a departure from the mysteries of Dorothy Sayers (1892-1957) and Agatha Christie (1890-1976), or from American writers who set their crime novels in the backstreets of New York and San Francisco. “I took the crime story out of that arena and put it in the jungle…that struck people as refreshing.”

Beat Not the Bones became an international success and especially in America.

Her second crime novel, The Fugitive Eye (Harper, 1953), was adapted for television and produced by Alcoa Premiere for its first season on ABC-TV in 1961 and as an anthology drama series for Kraft Mystery Theater in 1963 (NBC-TV). The story stared Charlton Heston (1923-2008) playing the main character, who wakes up in a forest to find an empty limousine, a dead chauffeur, and three unsavory characters staring at him. However, in Jay’s novel, the main character witnesses a murder, loses his eyesight in an accident, and finally escapes his enemies.

Critics and reviewers were equally impressed with Jay’s last mystery novel, A Hank of Hair. But her publisher, Harper Collins, refused to publish it considering it “risqué.” Pan Publishing (now Macmillan) accepted her novel and released it in 1964.

The story is described as a psychopathological horror novel in which the unreliable narrator, Gilbert Hand, moves into a hotel after the death of his wife. In a secret drawer he discovers a thick hank of hair and suspects either himself or a murderer.

The Minneapolis Tribune called it one of the best thrillers of the year. And the New York Times Book Reviewer said, “Do I need to add, to readers of this column, that Miss Jay cannot write a dull or graceless sentence.”

Geraldine Mary Jay married Albert Halls (1904-1982), an Oriental specialist, who worked for UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) and traveled broadly with him using the locations as settings for her novels. They married in Lahore, Pakistan in 1951.

She said she had the ideal life. “My husband was not a man who wanted a social life. So he would go off to work in the morning and I would stay at home and write my books.” They had no children and returned to Adelaide, South Australia in 1971 to retire, where Albert became an antique dealer.

Her step grandson, Dave Halls, called her “an absolutely amazing woman in many ways.” He described how she would sit in the lounge area of her room with a cigarette in one hand and a gin and tonic in the other and “spent most of her time thinking up new stories.”

He also said, “She was very modest of her winning the Edgar award. She never got to see the film version of her book The Fugitive Eye. And she was not fussed about any accolades from writing. Her interest was in writing and developing new stories.”

While it was her mystery novels that earned her a reputation as a respectable author of suspense, in her forty-year writing career, she wrote another seven novels as Geraldine Halls (Halls was her married name) and she wrote another under the alias Geraldine Mary Jay.

Her advice to writers: “…if you’ve got a gift you’ve got it. If you haven’t there’s no good…If you’re going to be a writer, you should take enormous pleasure in writing, to be determined to give pleasure, not just for yourself, but to readers. You must tell a story. That goes for any novel really.”

In 1993, seven of her books were republished by Wakefield Press, a South Australian publisher. Three years later, she died at the age of 76 in her hometown of Adelaide.

And that’s your Mystery Minute.

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Author’s Notes:

Today, Charlotte Jay’s books are difficult to find and some of her early editions can be purchased online but for hefty sums. For example, a hardcover first edition of Beat Not the Bones, in very good condition, can be purchased from Biblio.com for $500. A first edition of The Fugitive Eye can be purchased on Amazon for $89.

Jay is one of only two Australians to have won an Edgar for Best Novel. Jon Cleary’s (1917-2010) novel Peter’s Pence (1974) won in 1975.

Jay borrowed the title for Beat Not the Bones from William Shakespeare’s comedy, Love’s Labour’s Lost (mid-1590s), in which Shakespeare uses the character Don Adriano de Armado, a Spanish dandy, to mock the fallen glory of the Spanish Armada. In Act 5, Scene 2, Armado says, “The sweet war-man is dead and rotten; sweet chucks, beat not the bones of the buried: when he breathed, he was a man.” The play was first performed at Christmas 1597 at the Court of Queen Elizabeth 1.

The Edgar Awards is the premier award given out annually by Mystery Writers of America and named in honor of Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849). Awards are handed to both established and aspiring authors and began in 1946. Between 1946 and 1954, MWA added awards for Best Play, Best Short Story, and Best Television Episode. In 1953, the first Raven Award was given to E.T. Guymon Jr. (1900-1983) for his library of mystery literature. After a debate as to whether it was possible to narrow the entire field of published books down to winners and nominees, the MWA decided to officially add the Best Novel category in 1953.