What makes a prize winner?

Posted: September 22, 2011 in Book Awards

Are you as confused as I am by the plethora of prizes for crime fiction books?

There are CWA daggers of various types Diamond, Steel, New Blood, Gold and International. There is the  Edgar, McAvity, Barry, Anthony and Nero. There are the Theakston Old Peculier, the Arthur Ellis, and the Ellis Peters. There is the Davitt, Dilys, Shamus, Gumshoe, Agatha, Hammett, Martin Beck, Sue Feder, Bruce Alexander and the Riverton.  There is even the Archie Goodwin Award probably the most exclusive of all with only 4 winners: Rex Stout [not a surprise in the circumstances as the creator of Archie], Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle and Dorothy L. Sayers. 

My apologies if I have missed out a prize given by some worthy organization.

I used to religiously read the CWA Gold Dagger, Ellis Peters, and Edgar winners, and then when the International Dagger came along I read that short list, but now I am no longer prepared to even attempt to read all the prize winners. The criteria and qualifications for certain prizes are far too  restrictive. A book has to be published in the UK to win a CWA Dagger, thus preventing a double prize winner in the USA such as A Trace of Smoke by Rebecca Cantrell from even being nominated for anything here, while the late Stieg Larsson can win a prize for the Best British novel for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo because it was published in the UK then the procedure has become too complex for this old codger.    

What  qualities do the judging panels look for in a crime fiction novel?

I should interject here that both the two book judges I know have an incredible encyclopedic knowledge about crime fiction, and also impeccable judgement [which means they agree with me 90% of the time] and if the panels they sit on ever come up with an eccentric prize choice then they must have been outvoted. 

Unfortunately not all judges are of their quality, and factors such as innovative plot twists, great characters, unusual location, and an amenable writing style can sometimes be ignored. Some prizes seem to go to the same authors year after year presumably either because the judges love that particular author’s books, or are blind to other contenders. Authors supported by legions of admiring fans, massive marketing and publicity campaigns are obviously more likely to win  prizes, whatever the standard of the books they produce, while some authors don’t even get nominated because their publishers aren’t prepared to make the required effort. 

It is very sad but possibly the main factor in winning a crime fiction book award seems to be that you have won it before.

  1. Margot Kinberg says:

    Norman – A very thoughtful post that raises some important questions.I would love to respond intelligently to your post, because it’s an important one. But I confess I simply don’t have enough knowledge of the judging process to do that. I will say that more than once, a book I thought ought to win… didn’t. And a book I thought really should have been longlisted…. won. You’ve really offered good food for thought here…

  2. Not entirely true of the CWA John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger Norm, as it is for a first time published in the UK. Sadly, sometimes books are not entered. Examples might include that the publisher prefers the book to be considered ‘literary’. Luckily, unlike the Booker, the CWA daggers do not have restrictions on the number of entries made by publishers, so they can enter all those they consider worth a punt. It is both a massive honour and responsibility to be a judge for the JC. It is also great to see how many new authors are reaching publication and the extent of the new talent out there. This year will be interesting and a pure thrill for me with another new judge joining the panel: John Lawton. There was a time when this would have been all a dream and I am immensely lucky to be living it. It’s also a life changing experience.

  3. Yes.

    I could leave it at that but, of course, I won’t. To me anyway the current award situation is like that phase that schools (at least here) went through a few years ago where they stopped awarding prizes for outstanding achievement and gave everyone in the class an award basically just for showing up. There are so many awards that surely the whole point of them is lost. Probably not for authors…I’m sure it is nice to win one regardless of circumstances but as far as this reader goes awards have largely lost their significance in terms of separating the proverbial wheat from chaff. I rarely see a book these days that doesn’t have the words ‘Award Winning’ somewhere in its publicity and I don’t think anyone is lying…they have all won one.

    And as for inane eligibility criteria…why bother? I mean what earthly point is there in awarding two Swedish authors (Roslund and Hellstrom) an award for best British novel as happened at this year’s Bouchercon (can’t remember the name of the award)?

    I can see the point of national awards like our own Ned Kelly Awards and the NZ Ngaio Marsh ones because many of the eligible books would not have a chance at winning any of the others you mention (not because of quality but because they are not eligible unless they are published in the US or UK too) but these days I basically ignore the winners of the long list of awards you’ve given (though I do still like reading the International Dagger shortlist but that’s because a lot of my crime fiction ‘friends’ also do that and I like to discuss the books with you all.

  4. kathy d. says:

    I can’t keep track of all of the awards’ nominees, and I try to pay attention to the winners. But it is frustrating to see books that don’t seem to have “literary” mystery quality. I don’t necessarily categorize books into “literary” and “crime fiction,” as I’ve read many an excellent mystery, well-written prose, etc., as, for example, Adrian Hyland’s Gunshot Road. However, there are many more excellent mysteries which deserve a lot more attention than they get.

    When I see an author win for a book that is primarily a thriller, I wonder what’s happening. Are awards being given to the author who sells the most books, is on the top best-seller lists of the NY Times or its equivalent in various countrries? Or to the author or book which has sold the most copies? Or books that are being promoted?

    When I see a book like Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin nominated but not given an award, I wonder what’s going on, as I see another mainstream thriller win out. Or not seeing Hyland’s book on even a nominated list when his words are to be savored like a great dessert.

    I just look at the nominees and winners when they come by me as I read favorite bloggers’ posts or link in from their links. And I usually read books recommended or given good reviews. I tried to read all of the CWA nominees but my library didn’t have most of them and I refused to buy any more books than Vargas’ tale of Serbian vampires and severed feet.

    So I look at the lists and just keep moving, reading, discussing. It doesn’t matter much; what matters is the good reviews I read and word of mouth — or of blog.

  5. I look at awards lists as suggestions — they may or may not be good, they may or may not be to my taste, but somebody liked them, so I’ll give them a look. But I don’t think less of a book if it hasn’t been on somebody’s short list.

  6. Norman says:

    Thanks for your comments.

    Margot-I now am much more likely to base a book selection on the recommendation of a FF forum member than a prize.

    Rhian- I should not have included the John Creasey New Blood Dagger in that list of a plethora of prizes, because it serves a useful purpose of bringing new writers to our attention. The fact that the CWA have been bold enough to appoint judges who love books, and blog intelligently about them, rather than rely on the usual suspects from the media is to be praised.

    Although I am very concerned that John Lawton is joining the panel. He should be busy writing more Troy books, not enjoying caviar, champagne and dover sole at New Blood panel dinners. 😉

    Bernadette- I agree about the schools there is now an enormous gap in the achievements at our private, or selective, schools and the state schools caused by the attitude that no one must be told they have failed. I hadn’t noticed that Three Seconds had won the Barry for best British crime fiction book. Now can we claim Stieg Larsson and Roslund and Hellstrom as British. That would be almost as ridiculous as our cricket and rugby teams …..

    To be continued much later..my son has just arrived we haven’t seen him for nearly three months.

    • Norman, I feel I ought to clarify here. There are no ‘dinners’. There is one judging lunch. Due to the chosen location it’s highly likely that a steak will be chosen. Most are ordered medium rare which nicely honours the occasion by putting some blood on the plate. Never any champagne. Not even when a decision has been finalised. By then we’re on the coffee and scrabbling to come up with the words for each book to explain the judges’ impressions. Then it’s a dash for the trains and hope to avoid hiccups. 😉

      As for John, I assure you he has been busy writing. But I have been sworn to secrecy on the little that I know… 😦

  7. Norman says:

    My son and his fiancee have been very busy over the summer as you can see if you are interested at http://www.wnyproductions.co.uk/

    Enough OT advertising.

    Bernadette-our cricket and rugby teams are full of South Africans and Kiwis so Swedes writing British books is nothing new. The Ned Kelly is a real mystery why haven’t Peter Temple and Adrian Hyland won this over the past few years, and why can’t we get Australian books such as Gary Disher’s Wyatt in the UK.

    Kathy-I haven’t read Adrian Hyland [on my TBR mountain range] and I am interested in getting hold of that Tom Franklin, not because it was shortlisted but because you obviously think it should have won?

  8. Maxine says:

    Good points, Norman. Sadly the whole world is like this. In my area, scientific research, someone wins the Lasker prize which makes them very likely to go on to win the Nobel – the same few people pick up most of the prizes and awards. It is the same for books outside the crime sphere too. In addition, there is the element of doing each other a favour (judges being authors themselves or book reviewers/journalsits, who do the job and expect their own books to be nominated when their turn comes) I would much prefer to go by the recommendation of a writer or blogger whose judgement I have come to trust, than read a book because it won some award for a reason that may not be to do with how good anyone thought it was. (At one time I read the Booker shortlist every year, for about 8 years, but gave up in the end as there were not enough books I could bring myself to like or, sometimes, to understand.)

  9. Peter says:

    Which award does the commenter mean by “best British novel at Bouchercon? There is no such award and, while Roslund and Hellström did attend this year’s Bouchercon, they received no awart that I know of. There names do not appear on this round-up of Bouchercon award winners. They also did not receive a Barry Award.

    John Lawton ought to make an interesting judge. As for awards, I like Karen Russell’s attitudes: Short lists are suggestions.

    The Daggers seemed skewed toward the French for a few years which is a shame, because Fred Vargas’ most recently translated novel seems to be one of of her best. It would be a shame if backlash deprived it of consideration. But this Scandinavian thing is not over yet. Look out for The Boy in the Suitcase by Agnete Friis and Lene Kaaberbøl!
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    “Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home”

  10. Norman says:

    Maxine, I agree it is the cult of celebrity taken to its inevitable conclusion. Famous for being famous, and winning prizes because you have won prizes. Authors and journalists/reviewers scratching each others backs.
    At least I can rely on your reviews and recommendations as I am still buzzing over Blood Sisters and loving The Unlucky Lottery. I know we are not meant to quote from uncorrected proofs but I am tempted with one superb line. 😉

  11. Norman says:

    Peter here is the link http://www.deadlypleasures.com/barry.html to the Barry Awards for Best British novel won by Stieg Larsson in 2009, and I see Three Seconds was nominated.

    I am looking forward to reading The Boy in the Suitcase which comes highly recommended.

  12. Sorry to confuse – on one of the email lists I vaguely monitor it said R&H won the Barry Award for Best British Novel but it turns out they were actually beaten by Reginald Hill (thank heavens, he’s actually British)…they were nominated though for Three Seconds which is still stupid.

  13. kathy d. says:

    I am going to agree with your support for Noomi Rapace. She is Lizbeth Salander incarnate. I’m not sure about Daniel Craig, although I like him in general (Be still my heart re: his role in Defiance as Tula Bielski, a leader of Belarussian Jewish partisans), I liked the Swedish actor who played Blomqvist.
    When I saw the trailer, I heard Craig/Blomqvist speaking harshly to Lizbeth, telling her what to do in a tone I do not recall from the Swedish movie nor did I catch a note of that in the books. Blomqvist was sympathetic to her, not authoritarian.
    I saw this on FF and had to agree on Noomi Rapace. I wonder how Roony Mara will be seen here, and if the U.S. audience will like the film.

  14. Ken Mahieu says:

    Maybe we are setting our expectations too high. After watching movie awards for years and years, I came to appreciate the nominees, not the winners. The nominees called my attention to a lot of movies that I would not have otherwise noted. But the movies experience taught me another valuable lesson – they were not all “winners” either. It was still incumbent on me to research them as much as possible before committing my time and money to them. Who got the awards, who didn’t? For movies, it got to the point where it no longer mattered for me. Ditto for books.

    FF Forum?


  15. Norman says:

    Ken sorry for using an abbreviation FF forum is at http://friendfeed.com/crime-and-mystery-fiction. Founded by Maxine of Petrona I think i am right in saying everyone is welcome to participate.

    • Maxine says:

      Yes indeed, everyone is welcome to participate at the Friend Feed forum – which is for readers though, not for promotions 😉

      Re Peter’s comments on the Daggers – the Swedes have not done badly either! I also think that for these awards one must bear in mind that we don’t necessarily know which novels have been submitted for the prize. eg on the Daggers, the shortlist is selected from the books submitted by their publishers (costs about £15 to submit one) – so if a publisher does not bother, and some do not, they are not going to win. However, some of these prizes, esp the TV ones, charge a fortune to the publisher who wants to submit so these tend to be skewed to those books that have big marketing budgets behind them.

      Anyway, with the exception of the Daggers I prefer not to read books “just because” they’ve won an award, as mentioned, I prefer to read based on reviews at a few selected sites 😉

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