CASTIGATED AND PATRONIZED, eyed askance by psychiatrists and scorned by literary critics, writers of mystery stories particularly appreciate a little dignified elegance now and then. They got it, in full measure, when the Crime Writers' Third International Congress met in Stockholm during the week of June 13-19. The Grand Hotel looks down at its watery reflection like a Benetian palazzo, and the conference hall is a gem of baroque splendor -- crystal chandeliers, gilded curlicues writhing over the walls, red velvet chairs, tall mirrors.
We don't object to admiration either, and Stockholm provided ample amounts of that wholesome commodity. The unchallenged star of the show, with the Swedish public as well as his own colleagues, was Frederic Dannay, who wears the mantle of Ellery Queen with gentle grace. He was deluged with requests for autographs, which he suppled with tireless affability, and I sincerely hope he didn't suffer from writer's cramp, because I was one of the first in line.
Many of the other writers admired by Swedes are equally cherished in America -- Julian Symons, Hillary Waugh, Ruth Rendell, Dorothy Salisbury Davis, Dorothy B. Hughes, Desmond Bagley. Mary Higgins Clark and H.R.F. Keating were also kept busy autographing the books their Swedish fans thrust at them. Some writers are better known in Europe than in the U.S. Christianna Brand, a lady whose public persona is a delicious blend of Agatha Christie and Barbara Cartland, is an international Grand Master, but she is, as yet, less popular on this side of the Atlantic than she deserves to be. Peter Lovesey should acquire a host of new readers as a result of the television adaptations of his Sergeant Cribb stories. He deserves them; he is a singularly gracious human being as well as a talented writer.
Primarily the meetings were fun -- talking shop with fellow craftsmen who understand obscure references and sympathize with technical problems, exchanging professional jokes and trading some harmless gossip. But they were also educational, particularly, perhaps, for Americans, who are cut off from European writers by distance and linguistic incompetence. The Congress drove home a point we tend to forget -- that this form of fiction, despised by some solemn critics, has international appeal.
The U.S. delegation was the largest, except for the Swedes themselves, but the delegates came from 24 different countries, including Poland, Zimbabwe, Japan, and the U.S.S.R. A jovial gentleman from the Soviet Union, Julian Semjonov, has written an immensely popular series of books featuring the Russian equivalent of James Bond. None, alas, is available to English readers. Sweden has also produced some fine thrillers, few of which have been translated.
If we were unable to enjoy the literary talents of our Swedish hosts we could hardly fail to admire their zeal and their organizational abilities. Beginning with a reception at the magnificent City Hall, where the food on the buffet tables was almost as beautiful as the golden mosaics on the walls, proceeding with visits to the Police Academy and to a former prison, the pace never let up. Panels on such weighty subjects as "How to make your crime novel a best seller" were interspersed with interviews and private conferences on equally weighty topics -- contracts, publishers, and the inadequate recognition crime writers receive, to mention only a few.
The festivities culminated on Friday night at the awards banquet. The outside world has its coveted prizes -- Nobel, Pulitzer and the like -- but to those in the inner circles of crime, these are quite insignificant compared with an Edgar or a Golden Dagger. The Edgars are dreadful little objects and it has been suggested that Poe started haunting that church in Baltimore after a kindly demon informed him about the atrocities that bear his name. All the same, they are one of Crimedom's highest honors. Another such prize is the Grand Mastership of the Swedish Academy of Detection. The first to win this award was Ellery Queen, but for some reason he never got his plaque. Apparently it was sent to the wrong address. This omission was remedied in Stockholm, when E.Q. received his award in person. Also raised to the dignity of Grand Master were Americans Dorothy B. Hughes and Hillary Waugh.
For most delegates the big event was the awarding of prizes to the winners of the short story contest. Some modest flag waving is excusable here, I think; the U.S. carried away the top three prizes. Tony Hillerman was number three, Dwight Steward number two, and Frank Sisk won the grand prize, a Saab. Don't ask me what model Saab it is, it is a gorgeous car even if it doesn't exude poisonous gas or eject the driver when such an expedient is desirable. The prize-winning stories and an additional dozen runners-up will be published, in a volume which should be eagerly awaited by aficionados of the genre.
The only thing the members of the Academy couldn't control was the weather. It was dreary and drizzly and cool much of the time, but gray skies cannot dim the beauty of Stockholm and there were certainly no complaints from the Washington delegation, which included novelist Patricia McGerr and critic Michele Slung. We were happy to exchange our sunshades for the umbrellas provided to each delegate. So tack -- thank you -- to our Swedish colleagues, now our friends. It is the only word of Swedish most of us learned, but it is the only one we really need.