For the past two years I’ve had the honour of being one of the six judges for the Gold Dagger. Created by the Crime Writers’ Association, this is one of the world’s highest awards for excellence in crime writing, and is presented to the best crime novel written in the English language (there are other daggers for different sections, historical, debut and so on).
The books are submitted by publishers, although sometimes they need a reminder when they fail to spot a gem in their own catalogues. The judges are drawn from all areas of expertise (including medicine and forensics) and are often reviewers, so they can spot when a good book has slipped through the net.
The task requires reading a phenomenal number of works. The books are then rated on a points system, and those reaching the upper points must be read by all judges, although it’s often the case that we’ll all have read something that only scores low as well. There are guilty pleasures – and some absolute stinkers.
What do we look out for? Originality, style, strong characterisation, a powerful voice and a sense of place, something we haven’t seen before – and an indefinable quality that really makes a book stick in the mind.
The biggest problem? Near-identical novels. A copper with personal tragedies investigates a dead girl, sex trafficking involved, a sinister crime ring, corrupt corporations, ten pages of explanation at the end of the book. My personal hatred is extreme violence against helpless females; those books tend to get dumped unless there’s very strong justification.
Funny books and classic mysteries rarely win awards, although that rather old-fashioned attitude is finally changing because you don’t always have to be grim or ultra-realistic to write seriously. We whittle down the vast stacks to just twelve books, then go to half that number in long meetings at which each judge can present his or her arguments for an author.
This year’s final battle from six to just one winner takes place later today, and we’ll have an independent adjudicator sitting in with us to keep an eye on the process, although it’s a naturally democratic, agenda-free process. We need to reach a unanimous verdict, and the best way to do that is to argue the merits of every finalist.
The event is filmed at Grosvenor House, Park Lane and appears as part of the ITV Specsavers Crime Awards. It’s hard to gauge whether awards make much of a difference to sales (incredibly, there have been instances in the past wherein the publishers have failed to restock the winning book in shops) but they certainly help the author to sell his or her next novel.
By this time, next year’s books are already piling up on the doormat, and the process starts over again.