THE BEST FIRST CRIME NOVEL OF THE YEAR (2002)

Written by Andrew Taylor

First novels are special, for authors as well as readers. Writing a first novel is a form of liberation. For the author, the experience is by bare-knuckle ride, because as a writer you don't yet have the technique to control your effects. You don't even know if you have it in you to finish your book.







This year, as usual, thirty-odd novels were submitted for the CWA's John Creasey Memorial Dagger. Each was by an unknown author, each a potential source of unknown pleasure. As a bonus, taken as a whole they provide an intriguing cross-section of the genre as it moves into the new century.







The Crime Writers' Association has always encouraged new crime writing, so it is not surprising that the award goes back to 1973. Its long-term sponsor is Chivers Press.







A glance at the list of previous winners shows that the Creasey judges have often found what they were looking for. Among the names in one recent six-year period are Patricia Cornwell, Walter Mosley, Minette Walters and Janet Evanovich. Earlier winners include authors of the calibre of Liza Cody, Jonathan Gash and Paula Gosling.



In recent years the judges have been established crime writers whose work has won CWA awards - in other words, people who know just how important the Creasey can be to the career and morale of a budding writer. The judges for 2001 were myself, Val McDermid and Denise Mina.







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One interesting trend is that there is an increasing crossover between crime and "literary" fiction. Some fine examples include John Colapinto's About the Author (4th Estate), a witty American novel about literary plagiarism,the bizarre world of publishing and the price you pay for getting exactly what you want.








Another is John Fusco's Paradise Salvage (Scribner), written from the viewpoint of an Italo-American boy working in a Connecticut scrapyard. It is a mob-and-civic corruption novel which also gives a wonderfully realised picture of immigrant life.
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Susanna Jones' first novel, The Earthquake Bird (Picador), is set in Tokyo and records the catastrophe-strewn life of its British translator protagonist, a woman who attracts earthquakes and bizarre lovers. Less appealing are the literary novels whose authors toy with elements of crime fiction in a knowing manner, rather like pretentious chefs adding a modish dash of tomato ketchup to their latest recipes.











One welcome tendency is the emergence in print of a crop of writers who in previous years have done well in the CWA's New Writing competition, designed to foster new crime writing and put talented newcomers in touch with leading publishers of crime fiction.







{short description of image} Caroline Carver, the 1999 winner, is the author of Blood Junction (Orion), a shocking tale of murder and racial prejudice in the Australian outback. Working Girls (Flambard) is by Maureen Carter, who reached the final shortlist of the competition. It's a grimly compassionate crime novel centring on the exploitation of young prostitutes in the Midlands. Another of the competition's shortlisted writers was Barbara Cleverly, whose first novel, The Last Kashmiri Rose (Constable) is a classically-shaped murder mystery set in the British Raj during the 1920s. {short description of image}








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This year's entries also reveal the continuing appeal of the Men Behaving Badly urban school of crime fiction for male writers, usually the younger ones. Such novels are Boy's Own fairy tales in a modern setting, typically involving a good deal of sex, shooting and often the consumption of awesome quantities of alcohol and illegal drugs.



A memorable example is Kevin Wignall's People Die (Hodder and Stoughton), which concerns the exploits of an amiable history graduate with a flourishing career as a contract killer.



A distinguished American variant is Scott Phillips' The Ice Harvest (Picador), a wry noir crime novel set in Wichita on Christmas Eve in 1979. It follows the last evening in town of an engaging lawyer, as crooked as a double helix, who has pressing reasons to leave.



The psychological thriller continues to flourish, testifying to the fact that readers are often as interested in whydunit as whodunit. Mark Billingham's Sleepyhead (Little, Brown) focuses on locked-in syndrome: the psychopathic killer at the heart of the novel kills by mistake: he really wants to put his victims to sleep for the rest of their natural lives.




The intelligent police procedural is also a sub-genre that continues to interest talented new authors. Among the best British examples is Iain McDowall's A Study In Death (Piatkus), the first of series set in the fictional town of Crowby, as much a state of mind as a place. The amateur detective is still alive and well. Elizabeth Woodcraft's Good Bad Woman (HarperCollins) features Frankie, a London-based woman barrister with a sense of humour as well as a sense of compassion, in a novel billed as "murder with a dash of Motown". {short description of image}
First novels are rarely perfect, but often their strength lies in their very imperfections, in those quirks and eccentricities where originality lurks. That is what the Creasey judges are looking for - the sense that here is an author whose work contains the exhilarating possibility of unique development, together with a good story, well told. The winner of the 2001 John Creasey Dagger was announced at the Dead on Deansgate crime fiction convention in Manchester on 20 October. (For more information about the Dagger awards, see the CWA's web site at www.thecwa.co.uk.)



The Creasey Dagger shortlist for 2001 was:



JOHN FUSCO for Paradise Salvage (Scribner)



SUSANNA JONES for The Earthquake Bird (Picador)



SCOTT PHILLIPS for The Ice Harvest (Picador)



KARIN SLAUGHTER for Blindsighted (Century)



ELIZABETH WOODCRAFT for Good Bad Woman (HarperCollins)



And the winner was:



SUSANNA JONES for The Earthquake Bird (Picador)







Andrew Taylor, the present convenor of the Creasey judges, won the award himself in 1982. He has recently won the 2001 Ellis Peters Historical Dagger for The Office of the Dead (HarperCollins). He has also been shortlisted for the Gold Dagger and the MWA's Edgar. His latest crime novel is Death's Own Door (Hodder & Stoughton). His website is at www.andrew-taylor.co.uk



A version of this article appeared in New BOOKS.mag issue 4
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Andrew Taylor



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