The Hammett Prize (named after you-know-who) is a ‘Thin Man’ trophy sculpted by a toney artist. Nice! But no money. But a rousing presentation at a Mystery Convention. Next September 20-21st at the New Atlantic Independent Booksellers (NAIBA) conference at the Trump Marina in Atlantic City. Every other year it’s at ‘Bloody Words’ in Toronto. Only American or Canadian authors might submit books published during 2010. December 1, 2010 was the deadline.
So…I ‘read’ only 189 books--disappointing! I’d been promised 300-- in search of the cream of the ‘literary’ mystery crop. My four fellow readers were reading the same titles at the same time. I say ‘read’ because within a few pages, no further than Chapter One, you knew if you were holding the real McCoy. No purpose would be served in plodding on. I am not one of those sturdy readers who feel a religious calling to read on to the painful end. So… What did I find?
First, many of the true-crime entries were paperbacks, of the Chainsaw-Freddie stripe. The hardbacks were better, more honest reads, usually in-depth recountings of sensational murders or serial killers, old and knew. Typical titles: ‘The Devil’s Rooming House: the True Story of America’s Deadliest Female Serial Killer’ and ‘Killer Colt’, set in Gilded Age New York City.
My big discovery, however: Not many of us dabble in ‘literary crime-writing’, defined as a published work of adult fiction or narrative nonfiction, describable as about crime, or a suspense, thriller, mystery or espionage work of literary excellence. For the most part, members of our tribe write solidly-plotted, full-bodied character-d page-turners to the delight of our legion of fans. Our literary brethren obviously do as well or they wouldn’t continue to be published. But they have something more: what I think of as the literary gene because their names are known to us, and they’re repeaters.
What makes a mystery literary? The language, no doubt, but surely the dimension of the book, its breadth and capacity to awe us. Analysis was unnecessary, I just knew, felt when I was reading such a creature, either right off or later on.
I selected my ten, it wasn’t hard to do, they just stood out. In my next column, I’ll talk about each book and its author.