duncan lois
Each year the Mystery Writers of America pick an author—sometimes two—to be named a Grand Master.

This isn’t some random title but an honor to recognize those authors who have made contributions to the genre by setting a new course through their works.

I hate the term “transcend the genre,” because I don’t think the genre needs transcending. Instead, a Grand Master is an author whose work enhances, expands, and energizes crime fiction.

Two authors have been named the 2015 Grand Master and while Lois Duncan, at left, and James Ellroy, below right, couldn’t be more different, they are each deserving of this honor.

The Grand Masters will be presented their awards during the Edgar Awards on Wednesday, April 29, 2015, at the Grand Hyatt in New York City.

Lois Duncan’s work has been familiar since the mid-1960s. Duncan was only 13 years old when she sold her first short story to a national magazine. She was 18 years old when her first novel, Debutante Hill, came out. That was in 1957. While Debutante Hill sounds like one of those simple tales about rich girls that were so popular in the 1950s, Duncan brought a sense of social issues to the novel, an approach that she would continue to expound on in all her some 50 novels.

In Debutante Hill, wealthy teenager Lynn Chambers spends her senior year hanging out with her rich friends, waiting for letters from her college boyfriend and planning to become a debutante when this tradition starts up in her hometown. But when her father refuses to allow her to participate, Lynn suddenly is no longer part of the “in crowd.” Now an outsider to her wealthy friends, Lynn becomes aware of teens who are not in the same economic class. She begins to develop strong opinions about prejudice and social status, and rethinks her relationships with her former friends.

ellroy james
Pretty heady stuff for a teen a novel in the 1950s, especially one written by an author who was a teenager herself.

But that was mild compared to Duncan’s two novels credited with revolutionizing young-adult fiction. In Point of Violence and Ransom, both published in 1966, Duncan used a realistic viewpoint, presenting her main characters with choices and decisions that had consequences, paving the way for many other young-adult authors that followed.

Social issues are a mainstay of her novels. For example, Daughters of Eve tackled societal sexism, Killing Mr. Griffin the pressure placed on teens to perform and get into good colleges, and I Know What You Did Last Summer dealt with the Vietnam War and society’s reactions to it, plus the struggles of returning veterans.

Duncan has been nominated several times for the Edgar Award for Best Juvenile, and her books have been made into films.

James Ellroy’s novels are the complete opposite of Duncan’s work. One would never mistake Ellroy’s books for young-adult novels.

Ellroy writes about a dark Los Angeles that is fueled by crime, sexism, racism, and homophobia. He lays bare those issues, showing their ugliness and the decay that chips away at society.

L.A. Confidential probably is his best-known and most accessible novel, and was made into a brilliant movie that starred Russell Crowe, Kevin Spacey, and Kim Basinger.

This 1997 film earned nine Academy Award nominations and took two, including best supporting actress for Basinger.

Previous Grand Masters include Robert Crais, Carolyn Hart, Ken Follett, Margaret Maron, Martha Grimes, Sara Paretsky, James Lee Burke, Sue Grafton, Bill Pronzini, Stephen King, Marcia Muller, Dick Francis, Mary Higgins Clark, Lawrence Block, P.D. James, Ellery Queen, Daphne du Maurier, Alfred Hitchcock, Graham Greene, and Agatha Christie.

Congratulations to both Grand Masters.

(Coming Wednesday: A look at the Raven winners.)

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