Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Daggers Come Out

Author Laura Lippman being serenaded by editor Mike Stotter.

Certainly, the highlight of Britain’s crime and mystery fiction year is the Crime Writers Association’s (CWA) annual presentation of its Duncan Lawrie Dagger Awards, an occasion on which to break out the tuxedos and evening dresses. I have attended these award ceremonies for a number of years and always enjoy meeting the publishers, writers, editors, agents, judges, and critics who attend.

This, however, is my last year as a CWA judge. I’ve sat for the last three years on the short story panel. Our panel’s first chair was Peter Lovesey, but that position is now held by “Mystery Woman” Ayo Onatade. I have enjoyed my term as a judge. Despite what some people may think, it is a very difficult task not just in terms of reading volume and time spent, but also in terms of the hours needed to analyze submissions and balance objectivity with subjectivity. On many occasions, this sort of judging can be a rather thankless task. And it’s my belief that judging short stories is much tougher than judging novels; the lower word count for these abbreviated yarns forces writers to work harder in order to keep their narratives as concise and compelling as possible.

Not long before this month’s Dagger Awards ceremony began, I was invited by publicists Lucy Ramsey and Nicci Praça to sit with them at the Quercus Publishing table. Several of Quercus’ books had been nominated for commendations, including the late Stieg Larsson’s outstanding novel, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I was sure that Dragon Tattoo was going to win the Duncan Lawrie International Dagger for translated works, and wanted to celebrate the victory with company honchos Christopher MacLehose and Mark Smith. Last year, Quercus grabbed top honors for Peter Temple’s remarkable The Broken Shore and the celebrations had gone on until the early hours of the next morning. This year, though, there would be a number of surprises during the evening. But more on that later.

I arrived early with my friend and colleague, Shots editor Mike Stotter, at the awards venue, The Four Seasons in Park Lane. After knocking back a few overpriced beers (£5 a bottle, or $10 U.S. per glass at the present exchange rate), we headed to the hotel’s Oak and Pine Rooms for a champagne reception.

Our first encounter there was with Zoë Sharp, who writes the terrific Charlie Fox thrillers (Third Strike, Second Shot). She told me that after toiling away for many years as the CWA’s press officer, she’d finally decided to move on. (More on that decision here.) She seemed very sad about this parting, but apparently her workload had simply become too heavy to bear. Something had to give.

From Sharp, Stotter and I wandered over to Martin Edwards (Waterloo Sunset), who was looking very dapper, but also nervous. He said that he was flattered to have been nominated for this year’s Short Story Dagger (for “The Bookbinder’s Apprentice,” which appeared in The Mammoth Book of Best British Mysteries, edited by Maxim Jakubowkski), though he didn’t expect to win, as he had competition from Laura Lippman, Mike Connelly, Danuta Reah, and Robert Barnard. Edwards suggested that he had come to this party only to cheer the winner on. It’s lucky that I am an experienced poker player, for Edwards knew full well that I was one of the Short Story Dagger judges, and he was hoping for some sign on my face related to his fate that night. But all I did was tell him that the competition had been tough, and wished him luck with his excellent story.

A bit later, Stotter and I joined our hosts, the Quercus publishing team, at their table. I found myself seated next to both managing director Mark Smith and Nicci Praça. Also dining with us were Crime Squad editor Chris Simmons, authors Colin Cotterill (Anarchy and Old Dogs, Curse of the Pogo Stick) and Elena Forbes (Die with Me), in addition to Ron Beard, who recently joined Quercus after years at Hodder and Stoughton. Beard is responsible for Quercus’ paperback line, and is planning campaigns for the upcoming UK paperback releases of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo as well as the re-launch of Richard Stark’s novels in stunning new editions.

Over wine and a delightful three-course meal, we talked about the difficulties of establishing Quercus as an influential publisher. And after dessert, I joined Smith and company chairman Anthony Cheetham as they retreated outdoors for a smoke. Cheetham is a legend in British publishing, so it was very interesting to hear his views on the state of today’s book-selling world. Fortunately, both he and Smith remain optimistic about publishing quality fiction.

By the time we returned to our table, the awards ceremony was getting started. CWA chair Lesley Horton welcomed everyone to this fête and introduced fellow author Margaret Murphy, who was on hand to ensure that the evening went off without a hitch. Then without further ado, our after-dinner speaker Gyles Brandreth (Oscar Wilde and a Death of No Importance) was introduced. A former politician and Member of Parliament for Chester, Brandreth is also a frequent presence on television and radio. He explained to the assemblage how delighted he was to be asked to speak at the CWA Daggers, since he’d only just joined the association. Brandreth drew plenty of laughs when he encouraged the evening’s losers not to been too downhearted. He explained that he knew about being a loser, as he’d been voted out of office in the late 1990s.

Following a rapturous round of applause for his performance, Brandreth handed the microphone back over to Horton, who with Murphy at her side, announced the winners of this year’s Dagger Awards. (The full list can be found here.)

There were more than a few surprises, in more than a few categories. Caught off-guard, a number of winners spoke emotionally upon receiving their prizes. Personally, I was shocked that Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo did not win the International Dagger, as it was a standout novel. But of course, I hadn’t read Dominique Manotti’s Lorraine Connection (translated by Amanda Hopkinson and Ros Schwartz), so did not recognize the competition it presented. All I could do was shake Mark Smith’s hand in commiseration.

When the CWA John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger was given to The Bethlehem Murders (American title: The Collaborator of Bethlehem), by Matt (Beynon) Rees, a huge cheer went up around our table, even though Quercus’ Die with Me, by Elena Forbes, and Child 44, by Tom Rob Smith, had both been tipped as favorites to win in that category. Stepping up to the podium, Rees delivered what seemed like a very heartfelt speech. He noted at one point that he’d flown in for this ceremony from the Middle East, and was concerned about how successful he’d be in taking his dagger-shaped Dagger through airport security and back to Jerusalem.

Also emotional was Martin Edwards, who--despite my reticence to tell him beforehand--received this year’s Short Story Dagger. He appeared genuinely shocked, given the caliber of his competition, and recalled a conversation he’d had with his son on the matter. It seems that when Edwards told him who he was up against in this category, his son had replied that there was probably little point in his even making the journey to London. Thankfully, he did.

The evening’s big event was the presentation of the Duncan Lawrie Dagger (aka Gold Dagger). In preparation for handing it out, Peter Ostacchini of Duncan Lawrie Bank first reiterated his employer’s long-term support for this set of awards, which was reassuring to everyone who’d come out for this event. And then, amid absolute silence, he opened an envelope and read the winner’s name. It was a startled Frances Fyfield who came to the stage to receive the award for her standalone Blood from Stone. She said she wouldn’t be speaking for long, as she felt that any second she was going to be reduced to tears. Indeed, after thanking everyone in the CWA, Fyfield left the podium fast, her eyes obviously filling.

With the ceremony concluded, it was time to move on to the hotel bar and toast not only the winners, but (taking Gyles Brandreth’s advice) everyone else who’d made the shortlists as well. I thanked the folks from Quercus for their hospitality and shared my surprise with them at how the evening’s awards presentations had gone. Even someone like me, who’s seen these things through many times, was proved wrong in his predications of who would walk away victorious.

Beers in hand, Stotter and I proceeded to mingle among the celebrated crowd, chatting and slurping and generally enjoying ourselves. We bumped into Chris Simms (Hell’s Fire), and subsequently clinked glasses with Dagger winners Fyfield and Edwards (shown at left), both of whom practice law when they’re not writing.

Then, out of the corner of my eye, I spotted Laura Lippman, someone I hadn’t seen in a great long while. After buying us all a round of drinks, she was kind enough not to mention that I had been instrumental in denying her the Short Story Dagger this year. But I did make a point of saying how much I’d enjoyed her entry, “One True Love” (from Best American Mystery Stories 2007, edited by Otto Penzler and Carl Hiaasen), a chilling yarn about a soccer mom who also works as a high-class call girl. Lippman beamed, as she too had become intrigued by her character, and explained that she was working on a novel featuring the same protagonist. More drinks flowed, and Lippman and I talked on about her writing. I told her how much I was haunted by her 2003 novel Every Secret Thing, in much the same way that Dennis Lehane’s Gone, Baby, Gone (1998) had wrecked me emotionally.

By the time I checked my watch and realized that it was 2:30 a.m., things were starting to get a bit hazy. Fortunately, Quercus had organized a taxi for Stotter and I, since were both well and truly drunk. In fact, Lippman was having problems understanding Stotter’s peculiar cockney dialect, which becomes noticeably thicker with liquor. It was impenetrable by this point. But before she’d let us go back to our hotel, Lippman had to ask my editor friend about his singing. It seems that she’s a regular reader of The Rap Sheet, and had learned from a few of my posts about Stotter’s periodic efforts to imitate Dick Van Dyke’s performances in Mary Poppins. Well, it seems that Lippman’s question was enough to send Stotter into a full-throated rendition, which I captured with my trusty digital camera before hotel security closed in on us.

Before being forcibly escorted out the door to our waiting cab, we said our good-byes to Laura Lippman and I told her how much I looked forward to seeing her again in October, when I’ll be attending the Bouchercon convention in her hometown of Baltimore. (This will be my first Bouchercon in five years!) I also wished her success in winning the 2008 Anthony Award for Best Novel (for What the Dead Know), and she came back with fingers crossed for Rap Sheet editor J. Kingston Pierce and me, as we have also both been nominated for commendations in other Anthony Award categories.

Finally, it was into the taxi and off to our hotel. Needless to say, the next morning was a little sampling of Hell, but the memories of that Daggers night made the ache in my brain bearable.

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