Celebrating 30 Years of Mystery, Murder and Malice

To mark the Scarlet Stiletto Awards’ big anniversary, Sisters in Crime published The Scarlet Stiletto: 30 Years of Mystery, Murder and Malice, edited by Vice-President Lindy Cameron, courtesy of Clan Destine Press.

Sue Turnbull, a long-time convenor and now our Ambassador-at-large, wrote the introduction that formed the basis of her speech that she gave as host at the ceremony on 25 November.“Back in 1994, the Sisters in Crime convenors were sitting around a table in Park Street, St Kilda, having dinner and plotting our next move. What we didn’t know then, but do now, was that the next move would result in a competition that would run for over thirty years, attract 4,582 entries, launch the writing careers of a whole battalion of now famous crime writing women.

“A big question was what shall we call such a competition. Almost more than merchandise and stationery, the Sisters love a good slogan or a good brand. In terms of a slogan, ‘It’s criminal what a girl’s gotta do for a good read’ was emblazoned on our highly collectible tee shirts. In terms of a brand, while we knew the Crime Writers Association in the UK had their Dagger Awards, what we wanted had to be something sharper, more lethal, more – dare we say it – more feminine/ist.  

“I can’t remember who called it first, probably the supreme mistress of the double entendre, Lindy Cameron who is also the editor of this new collection of winning stories over the past 30 years, but what we came up with was (customary drum roll please) The Scarlet Stiletto Award.

“This immediately gave us the inspiration for the best crime trophy in the world – a red high-heeled shoe with its lethal steel heel plunged into a perspex mount. It was a perfect fit. The op shops of St Kilda were immediately raided for every red high-heeled shoe we could find, the Sisters being more inclined towards a comfy pair of flats than a murderous pair of torturous heels.

“In the first few years the awards, with prize money attached, went only to first, second, and third prize stories, but many writers received Special Commendation certificates. Because we wanted to ‘get them while they were young’ the Best Young Writer award was soon introduced. Gradually other categories were added to the competition and prize money pool: Malice Domestic, Best Film Idea, Cross Genre, History with Mystery, the Body in the Library, Most Satisfying Retribution…

“The only criteria: the writer must be a woman, the main protagonist must be female, and the story must – obviously – be a crime or mystery story.

“As someone who was closely involved in the judging process from the start, I can testify to the professionalism with which this was accomplished. Although it was, of course, another good reason to get together and have a party. Being a Sister has always been about having fun, even if our ultimate goal was to promote women’s crime writing and create more opportunities for this to flourish. So we went away together for a weekend of reading, laughing, and arguing fueled by ‘lashings of ginger beer’, or something similar.

“No names were attached to the stories. As a judge you were handed an anonymised bundle of typewritten pages that were read ‘blind’, in pairs, to produce a long list that was hotly debated. It was, therefore, always an exciting moment when the ‘reveal’ occurred and we discovered just who our winners were. Once the same person won it twice in the first two years (and we are looking at our first winner here, Cate Kennedy, who would go on to have a short story published in The New Yorker no less), we instituted a new rule. Winning a pair of Scarlet Stilettos obliged the author to become a judge. So far this has happened an astonishing five times. The Sisters evidently have an eye for new talent. But Cate remains the only two-time winner with a matching pair.

“Over the last thirty years, our winners have included librarians, editors, teachers, union officials, journalists, public servants, psychologists, investigators, hairdressers, exercise instructors, medical autopsy specialists, doctors, pharmacists, cattery managers, mothers, retirees, and, very occasionally, former police officers and full-time writers – all of whom have drawn on their vast and varied experience to give us a range of short stories that narrate a crime from the point of view of an extraordinary diversity of characters from all walks of life.

“This precious volume contains all 30 of the winning stories that are so different in their approach that it is evident that there is no ‘right’ way to write a winning Scarlet Stiletto story. Indeed, what the unpredictability of these stories suggests is that the more unconventional and original your take on the genre might be, the more likely you are to succeed. For example, there is even a crime story in verse and one from the point of view of a ghost.

“Sometimes there were trends, like the year when a large number of stories seemed to be about women ‘disappearing’ their partners, a trend not reflected in the crime statistics we hasten to add. Another observation is the fact that not many of the winning stories featured conventional private detectives or investigators. The Scarlet Stiletto writers were doing ‘domestic noir’, featuring women dealing with crime in the course of their daily lives, long before it became a subgenre of crime fiction.

“Reading through this collection, you will find stories that will make you laugh and make you weep. There are stories that are funny, heart-rending, terrifying, and breathtaking in their beauty. You will meet women of all ages from all walks of life. You will be entertained, surprised, and often moved. Perhaps you will even moved to enter your own short story in the next Scarlet Stiletto competition if you have not already done so.

“So here it is. Thirty years of The Scarlet Stiletto in one volume. Read it, marvel, enjoy, and be inspired. There’s always another crime story to be told.”

The Scarlet Stiletto: 30 Years of Mystery, Murder and Malice, edited by Lindy Cameron. (paperback $36.99; e-book $7.99)

Scarlet Stiletto: The Fifteenth Cut, an e-book collection of the 2023 winning stories, edited by Phyllis King ($7.99)

Both available from Clan Destine Press.