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Sunday 27 October 2013


The game is afoot: crime writers see whowonit

Ruth Dudley Edwards predicts blood in the drawing room before the denouement at the annual crime fiction awards in London

One of the things you have to accept as a crime novelist is that although your genre is immensely popular with the public, it's openly despised and patronised by the litterati, most of whom probably read and watch it on the sly. Like many of my mates in that world, I've learned to laugh at literary snobbery, and in my Carnage on the Committee, a satire on literary prizes, I took vengeance on some of my pretentious bete noirs, including the lateHarold Pinter, who used his position as a respected playwright to demand that his adolescent political opinions and atrocious poetry be taken seriously.

Anyway, since 1953, the doughty Crime Writers' Association (CWA) has fought to promote crime books, partly through the Daggers it awards to what its judges consider the cream of the UK-published crop. Pause for a brief brag: our own Gene Kerrigan won the 2012 Gold Dagger for the best crime novel of the year with The Rage, and yours truly, in 2010, the Gold Dagger for Non-Fiction, with The Omagh Bombing and the Families' Pursuit of Justice.

These days, in partnership with ITV and a TV production company, the CWA hangs out in a wider world. Tonight, if you've got ITV3, you can see the glamorous Specsavers Crime Thriller Awards, where CWA gongs were given out alongside a Film Dagger to Skyfall, Best Actor and Actress Daggers to David Tennant and Olivia Colman for Broadchurch, and an International TV Dagger to The Killing III.

Meanwhile, in the media and on the internet, controversy and whatabouterty are raging around the shortlists published last week after a CWA poll of its 600 membership to find the best crime novel, the best crime series and the best crime writer. Ever.

Such lists are a constant preoccupation with fans of this genre. Irish crime authors Declan Burke and John Connolly have been picking up awards on both sides of the Atlantic for their anthology, Books to Die For, in which 119 authors from 20 countries each writes about a favourite. (I chose the beautifully written The Moving Toyshop by Edmund Crispin, which combined a brilliant plot with non-stop ridicule of academia and literary pretension.)

Here are the CWA shortlists, in case you want to get involved in rows over the next week or so. With publications stretching from 1868 to 1998, the nominations for best crime novel are Wilkie Collins's The Moonstone, Arthur Conan Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles, Agatha Christie's The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and Murder on the Orient Express, Dorothy Sayers's The Nine Tailors, Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep and The Long Goodbye, Martin Cruz Smith's Gorky Park, Thomas Harris's The Silence of the Lambs and Reginald Hill's On Beulah Height.

Doyle's Sherlock Holmes, Margery Allingham's Albert Campion, Christie's Hercule Poirot, Sayers's Peter Wimsey, Chandler's Philip Marlowe, PD James's Adam Dalgliesh, Colin Dexter's Morse, Hill's Dalziel and Pascoe and Ian Rankin's Rebus are the series nominations.

Christie, Chandler, Doyle, Hill, James and Sayers all make the writers' shortlist, along with Dashiell HammettElmore LeonardRuth Rendell and Georges Simenon.

The cacophony of criticism is already ringing in my ears. Why is it so Anglocentric? Where are the Scandinavians? Why are all the series nominations male? And so on and on.

I voted for Hill's On Beulah Height, for Agatha Christie and for SherlockHolmes, the first because in addition to all Reg Hill's (yes, he was a friend, but that's nothing to do with it) humanity, intelligence, wisdom, memorable characters and brilliant writing, this novel about child abduction is one of the most haunting books I ever read. Now Christie didn't write particularly well, but her characters have a universality that has helped her sell 4 billion books (only Shakespeare and the Bible are bigger sellers) and there's no denying she was a genius at plots. And how could one choose anyone but Sherlock Holmes, who first appeared in 1887, who was murdered by his creator in 1893, resuscitated in 1901 in response to public pressure and has been wowing every generation since then in print, films, radio, TV and these, days, video games?

On the evening of Guy Fawkes Day, Tuesday November 5, there will be a celebration to mark the 60th anniversary of the foundation of the CWA at Foyles bookshop in London and to announce and discuss the winners. The best novel is anybody's guess, but I'll be astounded if Christie and Holmes don't romp home, in which case critics can argue about whether CWA members are a crowd of fuddies-duddies stuck in the past, or connoisseurs who recognise that in crime fiction, as in all literature, true quality improves with age.

Ruth Dudley Edwards's most recent crime novel, 'Killing the Emperors', is a satire on conceptual art which won the Goldsboro Last Laugh Award.


Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards