Sunday, December 19, 2010

Judging for the Hammett Prize

In early February, I was asked if I wanted to be a reader of all the books submitted for the Hammett Prize 2011. Lest you think I have star-power to be so singled out, know that the Chair of the Committee is a friend. The Hammett is awarded by the International Association of Crime Writers (IACW/ North American Branch) each year to a work of ‘literary excellence’, usually a novel or true-crime book. I had heard from another friend who had been such a reader that the job entailed reading and judging, in his year, some 300 books. Undaunted,  I heard like a bee buzzing in my ear  that  publishers and authors themselves would be  sending me 300 hardcover books. To keep. That decided me. Bring ’Em On! I said.

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.

--Robert Knightly

1 comment:

  1. Of course, you just knew. You write that excellently yourself. I can't wait to read about the ones you liked.