Best Historical Nominees 2020

Edith here, still writing from north of Boston and itching to get into her garden.

Once again I am delighted to welcome my fellow nominees for this year’s Agatha Award for Best Historical Novel. Yes, we are all staying home, sniff, and not gathering in North Bethesda next weekend for Malice Domestic 32. However – voting will go on, as will a virtual awards ceremony! Malice has announced that voting for all current registrants will begin on April 30, 2020 and will close on May 2, 2020 at 12:00 pm ET. The live Agatha Awards will begin on May 2, 2020 at 7:00 pm – just like it would have if we weren’t all quarantined, except we’ll all have our separate banquets at home. We hope you all can tune in to the show.

Here’s the question I posed to Rhys Bowen, Susanna Calkins, LA Chandler, first-time nominee, New England’s own Gabriel Valjan – and to myself:

“How would your nominated protagonist respond to a world-wide pandemic during which people were asked to self-isolate and take extreme measures not to infect others? How would they have stayed sane and amused?”

Take it away, gang.

Rhys Bowen: My heroine, Lady Georgiana, would be stellar in our current situation. Having been brought up in a remote Scottish castle, self isolation would come naturally, as long as she could get out into fresh air. And being related to the royal family, she had duty drummed into her from an early age. She would emulate her great grandmother, Queen Victoria and do what was expected of her—unlike her cousin, the Prince of Wales, who abandoned duty for the love of a certain American woman! The only problem would be her new husband, Darcy O’Mara. At this point in her life she has moved into a big country estate in the English countryside where it would be easy to keep the world at bay, except that Darcy gets given strange assignments that might put him into contact with other people in other parts of the world. But the house is big enough that he could have his own suite, just to make sure—if he could keep away from Georgie for that long.

Susanna Calkins: In 1918, when the Spanish flu broke out in Chicago, my protagonist Gina Ricci was about sixteen years old and living alone with her father on the lower level of a two-flat. Her brother Aidan was still over in France, fighting in the last months of the Great War. Her papa, an engineer who drove the city’s elevated trains (the “L”), was expected to report to work every day, leaving her alone. Gina was still expected to attend high school every day, even as public spaces, such as zoos, amusement parks, skating rinks, and theaters, were being closed throughout the city.  The Chicago authorities had decided it was better to keep children inside, so that their health could be better monitored by school officials. If a child sneezed or coughed, they would be sent home immediately. If an adult sneezed or coughed on the street, or spat on the “L”, they could be fined or even arrested. (Interestingly, churches, bars and restaurants remained open throughout the contagion, to keep up the city’s morale.) 

Gina, who likes to tinker, spent her time alone fixing things around the house. Her upstairs neighbor loaned her a few cookbooks, so she learned to make some simple meals for her father, to stretch their meager supplies the best she could. She also spent her days pouring over her neighbor’s magazines, mostly Life and Variety, imagining a more exciting life for herself.

L.A. Chandlar: It’s safe to say my firecracker Lane Sanders would not enjoy being cooped up. Being aide to the extremely busy, never stopping Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, she’d definitely still have a lot of work to do, even if distancing herself. But to occupy her private time, she’s a reader. In The Pearl Dagger Lane meets J.R.R. Tolkien and can hardly wait for The Hobbit to come out the following fall. Lane also loves to dance. So I think in the evenings after their favorite radio shows, Aunt Evelyn and Mr. Kirkland would roll back the carpet and turn on some dance tunes. And just like most of us, Lane would also be creating her own cocktails. She would also be a little sad for her city, like I am. The pulsing heartbeat of the culture, the wide variety of people, the very energy is the heart of it and it was suffering. But Lane would know beyond a DOUBT, that they will carry on. And the city will be even better, its spirit unbreakable.

New York City handled the 1918 flu epidemic really well and very similarly to how we are handling this today. But through the hard times, they didn’t just survive, they thrived. And we will too. It’s hard, but with wonderful people and fantastic art -like the Wickeds!- we will find beauty out of this adversity and we will thrive.

Gabriel Valjan: Walker is a combat veteran, and he’s survived some of the fiercest battles in World War 2. Few people know about the Colmar Pocket: Walker had gone from that to the Battle of the Bulge and the liberation of Dachau in rapid succession. The military timeline alone suggests that he lived through unspeakable days of relentless and ruthless carnage. The majority of combat veterans, past or present, who have lived through such violence do not discuss it. Walker is no different. He is soft-spoken, even insecure about his talents. What keeps him motivated is a sense of duty and service, to not fail those around him. A soldier’s first duty is to accept orders.

An order for self-isolation would be hard on him, because he would think he ought to do something. Doing nothing is doing something and that is the paradox. Walker would be smart enough to get it…eventually. He is well-read, has an appreciation for music, thanks to the first girl who broke his heart, and he knows how to avoid people because he did so for many years, for emotional reasons. As for sanity, readers discover alongside with Walker in the Naming Game that Walker loves writing. He realizes he has as much a talent for writing a story as he does for doing spy craft for the newly-formed CIA at a major Hollywood studio in 50s Los Angeles.

Edith Maxwell: Rose Carroll is a midwife in the late 1880s, so she’s a medical professional and therefore providing an essential service, if they used that terminology. Pandemic or no, women are still pregnant and having babies. Rose would be out there riding around Amesbury on her bicycle doing her work. She would make all efforts to be safe, and would be talking to other midwives and doctors about best practices. But her devotion to her moms and babies would take precedence.

In an era where just living took a lot of work, isolating wouldn’t have been easy. Rose’s nieces and nephews have books to read and games to play with, but Rose and and her older niece, Faith, would need to go out to several markets and the butcher to buy food and milk. They live in a town, not on a farm. And of course antibiotics and antiviral medicines were only a dream. Still, Rose is a positive person, and her Quaker faith leads her to service. She would be sewing masks so she and other could still get out there and provide assistance.

Edith: One more flash question for the nominees. What are you wearing to the awards ceremony? (Don’t bother with footware – I’ll have my old fleecey LL Bean clog-slippers on below my pretty dress…)

Rhys: I was supposed to be on a cruise on May 2 so I’ll be wearing new clothes I bought for the Caribbean (and it will probably be really hot in Arizona by that date)! Bikini, maybe?

Susanna: I will definitely wear my 1920s headband complete with feather, to match my book. I’m sure the crumbs from the morning’s breakfast will add sparkle to my face and sweatshirt as well, when caught in just the right glare from the lamp in my son’s bedroom where I do all my zoom calls.

L.A.: Well, since we went to Michigan several weeks ago to take care of my mom, I have a limited supply of options. But I of course packed a pair of red shoes. ️ So I’ll wear my black n white blouse and black slacks – the only set I have that aren’t jeans – with my Art Deco choker and patent leather red shoes. And I will be holding Lane’s favorite whiskey sour! If I can get my hands on a tiara, I’ll wear that too;-).

Edith: L.A., I have two tiaras – I’d loan you one if I could!

Gabriel: Like my character Walker, I’ll be casual and comfortable, in a Hawaiian shirt of the day. No promises, but I’ll try to recruit Munchkin the Cat to make a cameo. Probability of success is nil.

Edith: In addition to the aforementioned slippers, I’ll don my maroon mother-of-the-groom dress from my son’s wedding two years ago. Where else am I going to wear it? Or maybe I should slip into my nineteenth-century Quaker dress, except…with my newly gained pandemic pounds, I probably won’t be able to fasten the thirty covered buttons…

Readers: What’s your favorite pandemic-coping strategy? Who will be tuning in to the awards ceremony?

35 Thoughts

  1. Thank you, Edith and to the Wickeds. Congratulations to my fellow nominees. I admire your writing and feel honored. While it’s sad that Malice won’t happen this year in real-time, I hope that we can raise a toast to each other next year. Stay safe, and healthy.

    1. Kerry, they haven’t announced the logistics yet. If you are registered for the conference, you will definitely hear. If not, I hope they make the ceremony public but I’m not sure.

  2. Edith, I feel certain that Rose would scandalized to find out that you own one tiara, let alone two.

    This year has been one of the strongest I can remember for the Best Historical, Best Contemporary, and Best First categories, and it grieves me dreadfully that I won’t be able to hob-nob with all of you in person. But meeting you here on The Wickeds is about as good as it’s likely to get in the near future.

    As for coping with the pandemic, I’ve been banned from watching a certain person on the news because I’ve been unable to keep from throwing things at the TV, and while my aim is abysmal, we can’t take the chance that I might accidentally not miss, since we can’t afford a new TV now.

    My most effective coping mechanism is my 18-year-old Jack Russell mix, Ellie. She’s not in the best of health, but you’d never know it from her behavior. We recently had a new back door installed which is floor to ceiling glass. We’ve taken to calling it Dog TV, and she’ll watch out it for hours waiting for other dogs to pass on the levee behind our house so that she can heroically defend us from such potential trespassers. We’ve been forced to get a large piece of cardboard that we put between the glass door and the screen door whenever we need to “switch off” Dog TV.

    My other strategy has been (surprise) reading. Oddly, one of the books I read shortly before all this began was City of Scoundrels by frequent Agatha nominee, Victoria Thompson, and a major topic is the “Spanish” influenza epidemic of 1918. I absolutely never expected that we would all spend the coming months reliving many of the worst things about that time.

    Since I don’t own a tiara, I’ll be watching the Agathas in my ratty bathrobe (my usual business attire these days) and comfy slippers.

    My congratulations to all of you and a hearty, “Bon chance!”

    1. Dog TV! That is so funny, Lee. I also loved City of Scoundrels – it was shocking to hear how quickly that influenza killed people.

      1. Yes, when I read about people just dropping dead in the street, I assumed that it was something she HAD to have invented. But no, it was true and really happened. I was gobsmacked. I should have realized that a good author would not have made up something so inherently unbelievable.

    2. I love it, Lee! We have a dog and two cats and they are The Best therapy. I have to limit my news intake, too. I’m rrrrreally missing Malice, so it’s wonderful to connect here.

  3. Congratulations to all the nominees! You are all winners in my book. <3

    Hubby and I love to bake. However, with only the two of us and since I was brought up to waste not – want not, we have to keep that means of keeping busy to a minimum. Thankfully, we both love photography and the challenge to capture in a snapshot what we see with our eyes. Living in on small acreage outside the city limits, we are visited by many different critters daily to give us the opportunity to do that. With spring, we have the migrating birds too along with those nesting meaning there will soon be whole families to photograph.

    Although it's on everyone's mind and the news is full of statistics and details of what's going on. getting outside enjoying some fresh air and seeing the beauty around us helps us to see and think about more than the doom and gloom of today's world.
    2clowns at arkansas dot net

    1. Yes, Kay!! Being able to get outside is a wonderful to get refreshed. I just wish it would stop snowing here in Michigan😑. I could really use some sunshine!

  4. My coping strategy is the same as it always is – get a book! Susanna and L.A. – I think most people forget (or don’t know) that the US has done this before, under much harsher conditions, and, as you said, we survived. We will do it again.

    I can’t wait for the awards ceremony!

    1. Hi Liz! I was doing some research on NYC during the 1918 flu and the city did many of the same social distancing tactics. It really worked. And you’re so right, they not only survived, they thrived. And PRE-penicillin and vaccine age!! I think that’s why the Thirties speaks to me. They created so much beauty (& humor) even in the midst of hardships. Looking forward to “seeing” you at the Agathas! 😉

  5. My coping mechanism is just to relish each day as it comes. What will be will be, and in the meantime I’m enjoying my family, writing, cooking, walking the dog, grumbling at the cats, watching the birds at the feeder — all good stuff.

  6. Congrats, all you marvelous nominees! I’m so honored to be in this group. I’ve eaten up all your books❤️. Thank you for having us, Wickeds!! Edith, you’re so great. I’m really sad to miss Malice this year (& so many other wonderful things). So I can’t thank you enough for bringing us together on your blog. It’s been a lonely time, so this is really sweet. Xoxo!!!
    I’ll miss your red shoes, Jessica! And talking theater and creativity with you, Julie!;-)

  7. I hope I remember to tune into the awards ceremony. That sounds like something fun to do next weekend.

    Congrats to all!

  8. Congratulations to all of you. I wish you could all win since you are all winners in my book.

    Lee, our cat watches Cat TV out the dining room window where the squirrel/bird feeder is. She even stares out there in the dark.

    This time has taught me how to relax more than I ever have before. Sometimes I feel a little guilty not doing anything all day, but then I remember I’m retired and I did LOTS of things all my life. Time to enjoy the comfy sofa and the sunshine. It also helps that I have a loving hubby and a cuddly cat.

    1. I suspect that there are a lot of pets watching this. I bet there’s also Canary TV, Hamster TV, Goldfish TV …

  9. I feel like I’m being a bit repetitious with my answer since there’s been a similar question asked about pandemic coping strategies a lot lately.

    So at the risk of being boring, I get up and clean up. If I have to go out (grocery store, bank, post office), I try to get that done as early in the day as feasible. Otherwise, I’m at home and other than going out to throw the trash in the barrel or getting the mail, I’m inside. Also, with everything I would normally go do if I wasn’t at work being closed, there aren’t a whole heck of a lot of options anyway. Ordering take-out is about the only out-of-the-house indulgence for me right now.

    I watch TV, whether it is a series or a movie. I read something. It could be a book, a comic, a magazine or an article I find online. I listen to music. I write some music articles or a book review if I’ve finished one. I surf the Internet, which also allows me to stay in touch with those few people I truly care about. I have my food (probably too much because I’m sure I’ve put on weight I didn’t want and I’m glad I postponed the doctor’s appointment).

    I’ve napped because I don’t necessarily always sleep well. That’s not a pandemic thing, just something that like any number of other people just happens to me.

    And that’s how I cope. I keep to an approximation of what I’d normally do anyway. The only difference is that I am not at work for 8 hours during the day.

    I am not sure if I’m going to be able to watch the awards being given, but I’ll try. Congratulations to one and all and PSSST…..Hey, Edith…my fingers are crossed for you!

      1. A routine is good but in all honesty, necessary or I’d go batcrap crazy.

  10. I LOVE historical mysteries and adore ALL OF YOUR BOOKS! Congratulations, ladies. Thank you for writing such wonderful mysteries.

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