Tuesday, December 21, 2021

Trophy Life

By Fraser Massey
The drill’s becoming all too familiar. Where once book awards ceremonies provided an opportunity to meet with old friends, walk up to worthy winners and extend congratulations—or commiserate with unsuccessful finalists—these days, we must make do with virtual affairs. Although it’s good that an alternative way has been found to reward the best books of the year and their authors, it’s difficult not to sigh and wish that things were still as they used to be.

This year’s awards season for crime fiction (recognizing works published primarily in 2020) kicked off in March with the Audies, presented by the New Jersey-based Audio Publishers Association. The host of that online event—actor, comedian, and audiobook voice artist John Leguizamo—resisted the temptation to lament what might have been, though he did draw attention in his self-deprecating opening remarks to the fact that he couldn’t see or hear who he was addressing: “It’s weird to tell jokes and not hear anyone laugh, I’ve got to be honest. But I’m not a stranger to it …”

Alyssa Cole’s unsettling New York-based thriller, When No One Is Watching, took top honors that night in the Audies’ Thriller/Suspense category. It went on to triumph again in April, capturing the Edgar Award for Best Paperback Original.

By the time we reached July and ThrillerFest, during which the International Thriller Writers organization announced the recipients of its annual Thriller Awards amid a Web-exclusive gathering, Cole’s novel still numbered among the victors. But there were signs that things weren’t going to go all her way in the coming months.

ThrillerFest, as you may recall, gave its 2021 Best Hardcover Novel prize to S.A. Cosby’s Deep South noir page-turner, Blacktop Wasteland, while David Heska Wanbli Weiden’s 21st-century western, Winter Counts, walked away with the Best First Novel commendation. Those two novels would go on to dominate the rest of this year’s ceremonies and awards announcements.

As we reached December, it was anybody’s guess which one of them would top the year’s winner of winners honor roll. On December 8, we finally got our answer, when voters weighing in on nominees for a new set of annual accolades, Britain’s Crime Fiction Lover Awards, gave Winter Counts one last prize and cemented that novel’s position at the top of the chart that follows—The Rap Sheet’s roster of 2021’s most highly decorated crime, mystery, and thriller novels.
1. Winter Counts, by David Heska Wanbli Weiden (Ecco [U.S.], Simon & Schuster [UK])
2. Blacktop Wasteland, by S.A. Cosby (Flatiron [U.S.],
Headline [UK])
3. When No One Is Watching, by Alyssa Cole (Morrow)
4. We Begin at the End, by Chris Whitaker (Henry Holt [U.S.], Zaffre [UK])
5. Razorback Tears, by S.A. Cosby (Flatiron [U.S.],
Headline [UK])
6. All the Devils Are Here, by Louise Penny (Minotaur [U.S.], Sphere [UK])
7. Turn to Stone, by James W. Ziskin (Seventh Street)
8. The Last Thing He Told Me, by Laura Dave (Simon & Schuster [U.S.], Viper [UK])
9. The Thursday Murder Club, by Richard Osman (Pamela Dorman [U.S.], Viking [UK])
10. A Song for the Dark Times, by Ian Rankin (Little, Brown [U.S.], Orion [UK])
Bubbling just under this list: The Law of Innocence, by Michael Connelly (Little, Brown [U.S.], Orion [UK]; Squeeze Me, by Carl Hiaasen (Knopf [U.S.], Sphere [UK]); The Turning Tide, by Catriona McPherson (Quercus [U.S.], Hodder & Stoughton [UK]); and Murder at the Mena House, by Erica Ruth Neubauer (Kensington).

Author Cosby can perhaps find some consolation for having been pipped at the post for first place in the fact that he had two novels ranked among the winners—one of which, Razorblade Tears, was actually released this year, rather than last, and is therefore likely to secure still more laurels during the 2022 awards season.

The results from 21 awards announcements made over the last year were consulted in order to create our top-10 list.* A total of 37 books won prizes during the 10 months of the 2021 awards season, with another 177 nominees falling at the final hurdle and failing to make it into the virtual winners’ circle.

All of the novels selected offered welcome distractions from the real-life events of this past year, though Ziskin’s Turn to Stone—which features a group of murder suspects placed in quarantine in 1963 to avoid the potential spread of a highly contagious virus—was maybe a knowing nod to a plight that many of us understand today.

For readers, prize ceremonies provide a handy guide, if needed, to what titles one should consider buying next. For writers, they serve an altogether different function. Thomas Perry may have put it most eloquently, back in August, when he thanked the judging panel of the Barry Awards for naming his Eddie’s Boy their Thriller of the Year.

“Nobody writes in the hope of being given awards,” he said. “But when awards come along, they certainly inspire us to work harder, think of more ambitious projects, and try to get better at telling stories, because knowledgeable people are out there paying attention.”

Sadly, as things turned out, this became another year when writers and “the knowledgeable people paying them attention” were once again socially distanced by digital technology.

Congratulations are due to all of the 2021 award winners and nominees, and we send them our profound thanks for the amazing stories they brought into our lives.

* A note about list placements: In 2020, when Northern Irish author Adrian McKinty topped this chart with The Chain, he tweeted that The Rap Sheet had “scientifically proved” he’d written the best book of the year. It’s not really like that. Our top-10 list is based on nothing more than simple arithmetic. The novels are listed in order of the number of awards they won during the year. When more than one title has picked up the same number of prizes, their relative positions in the chart are decided (whenever possible) by the number of nominations each received over that period. If a tie still results, then the book that appeared in the greatest number of awards longlists is given precedence. If even then there’s nothing separating certain winning titles, then prize lists from ceremonies which published the number of votes cast for individual titles are consulted.

Results of the following 21 honors contests went into developing this year’s “champions of champions” roll: the Agathas, the Anthonys, the Audies, the Barrys, the CrimeFest prizes, the Daggers, the Edgars, the Crime Time FM Awards, the Goodreaads Choice Awards for Best Mystery & Thriller, the Thriller Awards, the Leftys, the Los Angeles Times prize for Mystery & Thriller, the Crime Fiction Lover Awards, the Macavitys, the Neddies (actually, just the International Crime Fiction prize at Australia’s Ned Kelly Awards, since my aim was to include only ceremonies open to all entrants, rather than exclusive groupings), the Nero Award, the Shamuses, the Shirley Jackson Awards, the Strand Magazine Critics Awards, the She Reads Best of 2021 Awards, and the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year.

READ MORE:The Award-Winning Novels of 2021” (Book Marks).

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