I’ll Be The Judge Of That

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.

8 comments on “I’ll Be The Judge Of That”

  1. Dan Terrell says:

    Particularly like paragraphs #3, #4, and #5.
    Second your hatred of “extreme violence against helpless women” and I’ll add children used as pawns or victims by insane baddies.
    Or paperback novels with titles like The Berry Buckle Murders. “Can Lizabelle Lewis and Mr. Old Litter, her half-blind Maine Coon cat, discover who purloined a 17th century petit point Walrus serviette in time for the annual G-7+6 converence in Paris? If Loyal Reader you answered: “But yes, this is book #666, no? You may be wrong!”

  2. Helen Martin says:

    Dan, you are describing cosy mysteries, books which are really read for idle fun. They often contain recipes, patterns, or project instructions. There is even a series involving a bookbinder who repairs valuable old books. They’re harmless and I don’t expect anyone would hold their breath waiting for a prize announcement. They’re generally a one evening’s read, but it’s the characters who bring you back to a series. “Has she finally got stupid Jim out of her life? Did the cafe succeed now that she knows what she was doing wrong? Is she going to marry the hunky English security man?”
    Let’s see, bodice rippers for sexual stimulation, angry violence for the frustrated, science fiction for those who think the world will change, cosy mysteries for puzzle lovers who would like a few more close friends. I’m sure there are others.

  3. Dan Terrell says:

    Helen – you are correct. Only gentle disparagement intended. There are good cosy novels.
    But so many paperback series in so many genres seem to exist for only one reason: distracting the reader through another day, without raising the brain’s temp. These would appear to be in the same niche with the many news-print bi-weekly, monthly and quarterly magazines that offer a variety of crossword puzzles, such as Crisscross Cross Word Puzzles. After buying several one vacation, I realized that if you remembered 300-500 two to six letter words and their “clues”, you could probably zip (to close trousers) through any, and all, such magazines. Healthier than cigarettes though and probably somewhat stimulating.
    When my parents were in a Senior Living facility a decade and more ago, I remember noticing how many of the residents had these magazines and a pencil in their day bags. (Although one old gentleman had a large print addition of the Tropic of Cancer.)
    I think there is a dark one act play or a short story lurking in such homes. A novel would be too deadening.
    “Robert, what’s a five letter word for beverage on tap that begins with a W and ends with an R?” “Stout, Charles.” “Oh, don’t be an ass; that’s seven letters with the W and the R.”
    I’m not being mean, but, unfortunately, somewhat realistic. Been there, seen that for several years. Burrr…

  4. Vickie says:

    What are the six books that are crowding this year’s finish line???

  5. Diogenes says:

    Vickie, this is the long-list.


    If I was a betting man, I’d be on A Land More Kind than Home.

  6. admin says:

    Actually we press-released details of the final four at a dinner, then online – I don’t have them to hand here – to be honest it’s not been a stellar year and a far larger number of mid-range books were of very poor quality. We do now have a well-deserved winner, though.

  7. Helen Martin says:

    I’m glad there was at least one book to meet the criteria. @Dan, I read somewhere that doing crosswords doesn’t necessarily stimulate the mind. Reading this blog, on the other hand, definitely does.

  8. glasgow1975 says:

    Mo Hayder writes some seriously disturbing stuff, I often wonder if she’s deliberately trying to see how far she can go, or since being a woman she’s ‘allowed’ to be more disturbing than a man would be.

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