Sunday, July 08, 2007

The Daggers Get Around

The Crime Writers’ Association’s annual Dagger Awards presentations are, to me, a quintessentially British affair. It’s a chance for the best UK and American crime fictionists to don tuxes and expensive dresses (as well as lesser attire), and get together for an evening of mutual congratulation in one of the world’s finest cities, London. The Daggers are sometimes viewed as being very “English,” with a small “e,” but their dispersal has become a thoroughly international event.

This last Thursday marked the latest Dagger Awards celebration, held at the Four Seasons Hotel in London’s swanky Park Lane district. I had enquired as to the costs of staying over at this hotel, but the prices were rather higher than my budget allowed, so I booked a twin room with Shots e-zine editor Mike Stotter at a hotel in the cheaper Hammersmith district. Once outfitted in tuxes, we flagged down a cab and sped toward Park Lane. However, our cabbie reminded me of Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver (1976), if only because he refused to take our advice on directions, and relied on his GPS navigation system to haul us round to the West End. After some heated debate, he finally threw us out of his car. We were stranded in the West End, conspicuous in our best bib and tucker, and forced to make a mad dash to Park Lane, our mobile phones going mental as friends from the Daggers fête called to ask where we were. We finally arrived hot, out of breath, and filmed in sweat just as everyone else was being ushered to their places for the evening’s meal. I grabbed two bottles of beer to help us cool down, and we took our seats. Stotter was assigned to the Ian Fleming Table, as he was one of the judges responsible for having chosen this year’s Ian Fleming Steel Dagger Award. I sat with a number of other judges, since I am on the CWA Short Story panel.

This was the second year that Britain’s Duncan Lawrie Private Bank had sponsored these commendations, and as usual, it had no idea what surprises to expect. Awards presentations frequently court controversy. In 2006, for instance, the International Thriller Writers organization was met with criticism after its judges put into contention for its first-ever awards an all-male shortlist. After the announcement of Dagger Award winners in 2005, the CWA fell under attack by critics who thought it highly inappropriate that a translated work (Icelander Arnaldur Indridason’s Silence of the Grave) should have won what was then known as the Gold Dagger, today’s Duncan Lawrie Dagger. (A separate category, the Duncan Lawrie International Dagger, was thereafter established to cover works not originally published in English.)

No such controversy surrounded this year’s winners. However, I did find the roster of victors rather humorous, given from whence they hail. Consider:

Duncan Lawrie Dagger: The Broken Shore (Quercus), written by Peter Temple (shown above)--a South African-born Australian.

The Ian Fleming Steel Dagger and CWA New Blood Dagger: Sharp Objects (Wiedenfeld & Nicholson), by Gillian Flynn--an American.

CWA Debut Dagger: The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, by Alan Bradley--a Canadian.

Dagger in the Library: Stuart MacBride--a Scotsman.

Duncan Lawrie International Dagger: Wash This Blood Clean from My Hand (Harvill Secker), by Fred Vargas--a Frenchwoman.

What, no Johnny English winners?

Does that mean there’s a crisis in modern English crime fiction?

What will the vicar or the butler think?

This is why I said before that the Dagger presentation has now become a truly international occasion, the United Kingdom this year being represented by a lone Scotsman. (And yes, I already recognize that it would be technically impossible for an English novel to win the International Dagger.)

One of the highlights of last week’s event was Fred Vargas (the pseudonym of French historian, archaeologist, and author Frédérique Audouin-Rouzeau). She must have consumed rather a large volume of wine before she took to the podium to accept the International Dagger Award, for she proceeded to ramble on for 20 minutes, in what at times was a barely coherent rant, about how she had a cunning plan to next year pick up the top award, the Duncan Lawrie Dagger. I think Vargas took exception to being ineligible for that commendation (which is worth £20,000--which works out to roughly $39,000 U.S. or €29,500), as her work is in translation. She said she intended to move to England, learn English, become a naturalized English citizen, and write an English crime novel. All in order to win the Duncan Lawrie Dagger. Vargas added that she was gratified to be following in the estimable tradition of Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers, and feels deep in her heart an affinity for all things English. Audience members looked at each other in bemusement at this eccentric acceptance speech, and there were roar of good-natured laughter; but at 20 minutes in length, that had to be among the longest such addresses in CWA history.

Everyone who is anyone in British crime fiction was at this dinner, including publishers, agents, authors, members of the press, and numerous crime-fiction aficianados with guests in tow. I took particular delight in meeting the gang from Quercus and exchanging a few words with honored Aussie Peter Temple.

I was also pleased to chat with Stephen Booth, who I hadn’t seen for a while. He was a Dagger in the Library winner a few years back, and so together we congratulated the only British winner of this evening, the very funny Stuart MacBride (Broken Skin), who was genuinely shocked, after penning only three novels, to walk away with that same coveted award from British librarians. (Both authors are shown at left.) MacBride even forgave me for calling him “Stuart MacDonald” for most of the night--a consequence both of my being somewhat drunk, and of having a beared Aberdonian friend with a similar name. Thanks are due here to HarperCollins, which bought the champage with which we toasted MacBride’s victory (though it later fueled my colossal hangover).

Much of that evening was a blur. I remember talking for a time with Labour politician, lawyer, and crime writer Bob Marshall-Andrews, QC, who I first met at Dead-On-Deansgate and have learned to respect for his vigilance against right-wing attitudes in his party. I also had the chance to tip back a few beers with my dear friend Simon Kernick, only party in celebration of his new thriller, Relentless, being picked for the Richard and Judy summer-reading list. Incidentally, the London Times this week offers a special feature on Kernick. You’ll find that here.

As for the rest of this Daggers soirée … Well, I spent it networking and drinking and generally carrying on in fine style. It would take up too much space and bore the britches off most readers for me to list everyone to whom I spoke. But never fear, I shall offer a cornucopia of photographs from the event at Shots, after Mike Stotter and I return from this coming week’s ThrillerFest in New York City.

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