The Canadian Press - ONLINE EDITION

Penny, Pascoe and Brown vie for prestigious Edgar mystery writing awards

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MONTREAL - It has all the earmarks of a classic whodunit — a bunch of people gathered in a posh New York room waiting for a big secret to be revealed.

Except this time the secret is who brings home an Edgar award, the Oscar of the mystery writing world. Will it be one — or all — of the three Canadians in contention?

Quebecer Louise Penny, British Columbia's E.R. Brown and Calgary-born Will Pascoe are all nominated for a 2014 Edgar Allan Poe Award, which will be given out at a gala banquet in New York on Thursday.

Penny is up for "How the Light Gets In," the ninth in her bestselling series of mysteries starring Armand Gamache, the resolute chief inspector of the Quebec provincial police homicide squad. It debuted in the No. 1 spot in the New York Times bestseller list when it was released last fall.

Brown, a first-time novelist, is nominated in the Best Paperback Original category for "Almost Criminal," the story of a young man coming of age in British Columbia's booming marijuana grow-op industry.

And Pascoe is being recognized in the Best Television Episode Teleplay category for his "Variations Under Domestication," which gave suburbia a surreal, darker tint in the engrossing sci-fi thriller "Orphan Black."

It's the first Edgar nomination for Penny, who has already won a slew of mystery writing awards, including the British Dagger, five Agathas and Canada's Arthur Ellis prize.

"I'm overwhelmed," she said cheerfully in a recent telephone interview with The Canadian Press, describing the experience as "incredible" and "amazing."

"It's like getting pregnant, although thankfully that's not involved. It's not quite that intimate an award."

She laughed when she was told that Scottish crime writing legend Ian Rankin tweeted, "My money's on Louise Penny. She wins everything."

Rankin is nominated in the best novel category along with Penny, for his book "Standing in Another Man's Grave."

"Did he say that?" Penny said of the tweet, noting she and Rankin have been friends since meeting years ago at a crime writers' festival in Quebec City. "He is a lovely man.

"That's nice of him because I actually expect him to win and he should."

Poe was one of the earliest American writers of the short story and is credited with creating the detective fiction genre. The award, commonly known as The Edgar, honours the best in mystery fiction and non-fiction in print and television from the previous year.

Previous winners include Rankin, Raymond Chandler, John le Carre and Elmore Leonard.

Pascoe, who grew up in Montreal and now splits his time between Canada and Los Angeles, said news of his nomination came "like a bolt of lightning."

"I'm just proud of the whole team because when you're writing a television show, one writer will write an episode but there's lots of fingerprints from the other writers," he said, citing the collaborative process.

Pascoe said all the nominations speak well of Canada given the level of competition in each category. He will be up against writers from such shows as "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" and "The Following" from the United States, as well as Britain's "The Fall" and "Luther."

Pascoe pointed out the Americans and British usually bring their programs and books to market with bigger production and publicity budgets than those seen in Canada.

"But we consistently find ways to break through and to capture a wider audience south of the border," he said. "It's just kind of empowering and makes me proud to be a Canadian when you see things like that happening."

Brown laughed and said he thought an excited friend had confused him with British writer Eric Brown — which is also the Canadian Brown's full name — when they told him about the nomination. He went to the Edgar website to see for himself.

"I clicked the link and, holy cow, there I was."

All three creators bring something different to the table.

Penny's nine books — a 10th instalment in Gamache's saga will be out in August — can easily be an entertaining read individually but become almost an epic when taken together.

They are as much character studies as mysteries, although there's plenty of intrigue.

A former broadcast journalist, Penny became a writer when she found she needed a change and wanted to pursue her lifelong dream. Her husband backed her and Penny says many of Gamache's finer qualities are drawn from him.

"Writing Gamache is really an exploration on the better angels of my nature, trying to encourage that in myself, the integrity, standing up, being the dissenting voice," she said.

She deftly weaves current events and past history throughout her story. Surprisingly, considering the way she depicts the inner workings and politics of the police, Penny says she doesn't do much research.

"I don't want to be restricted by the truth," she said, allowing that her journalism background does give her some information. "I want to have leeway to create whatever I need."

Brown, on the other hand, did a fair bit of research on marijuana grow-ops, some of which he points out is readily available at any local bookstore.

Brown, whose day job is as an advertising writer, says the idea for his book came from a conversation with a friend who was worried about her sister. The sibling, who was a suburban soccer-mom type with a fine arts degree, had just quit her regular job because she was making so much money clipping marijuana in a grow-op.

His friend fretted about what the woman's children would think once they found out what mom was doing, although Brown suspected they probably knew.

"It just brought home to me the normalization of the marijuana business in our culture," said Brown, who compares it to the alcohol Prohibition era in the 1920s.

"It's really everywhere and yet no one's talking about it."

He began talking to people about it and found out that at one time he even had three grow-ops in his own neighbourhood — until a Mountie moved onto the block.

Brown, who is originally from Montreal, had been looking to expand into a novel beyond his short stories and saw his plot taking shape as the crime elements began to merge into what had initially been a family drama.

"You can't really have bikers coming around and then pretend that a boy's stresses with his mother can compete in a relative emphasis kind of way so it ended up being a crime novel."

In Pascoe's case, he had to elevate an already innovative series that is known for its twists and turns.

"Orphan Black," about a wide-ranging conspiracy and a group of clones trying to crack it, is a bona fide hit thanks to its plots and the standout performance by star Tatiana Maslany.

Pascoe came up with a surreal potluck party involving one of the clones who is a suburban mom and then threw in a little black humour and Quentin Tarantino-esque touches to boot.

"It was like worlds colliding," said Pascoe, who is currently working on the American-British fantasy TV series "Da Vinci's Demons."

"It became a real joy and challenge to write this because it was all these different characters coming together for the first time and revealing secrets and betrayals but all with this party going on that couldn't be disrupted."

Pascoe said it was a tricky episode to write because the whole premise could collapse if it strayed too far into farce or unbelievability.

"All of these episodes exist on this continuum that's always sliding forwards and backwards," he said of working on "Orphan Black," which recently started its second season. "It has a lot of moving parts in it which makes it extremely exciting to write because it's always in flux."

While all three writers have known success in the United States and beyond, they are still proud Canadians.

The Toronto-born Penny, who settled in Quebec decades ago, recognizes the market hurdles of locating stories in Canada and says there was some initial resistance from publishers and agents to having her books set in the Great White North.

However, she wants it to be absolutely clear that the story is set in Canada. The successful author, whose books have been translated into 25 languages, says the doubters have been proven wrong.

"I think readers generally, but certainly of crime novels, are fascinated with other places and other cultures."

The locale for "Orphan Black" is somewhat generic but Pascoe says it has made a big impact beyond Canada's borders on what the country's entertainment industry is capable of doing.

"Especially in L.A., within the industry, it's a show that everyone is watching and is talking about," said Pascoe, whose other TV credits include "Heartland" and "Bitten" in Canada and "The Finder" in the U.S.

"It made me think that maybe in Canada we are on the cusp of something, of making our own shows that are unique, that aren't just copycats of American shows with different actors."

He said one of his happiest gigs was his first regular TV job, writing for "Combat Hospital," about a Canadian military medical unit in Afghanistan.

"It was great to be part of this thing that was telling a little bit of the Canadian story in Afghanistan," said Pascoe, whose family has deep military roots.

Brown, who is working on his second novel, said he was tempted to set his Edgar-nominated story elsewhere than the fictional Wallace, B.C., but was too far into it when it occurred to him. He also said British Columbia and the border was just a better fit.

"I had the hope that B.C. bud is well enough known and the fact that B.C. bud is exported into the U.S. and it's known down the coast, it might be well enough known to attract some readership," he said.

Brown added his publisher, Dundurn, "is a very patriotic Canadian company and they never wanted to make any changes like that."

It seems to have paid off, he said, noting he's had several positive reviews and comments from Americans.

"The fact that the biggest award it's been nominated for is in New York is telling."

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