Article published on July 1, 2013.
Honestly, now… is it really better to give than to receive? I was able to sample (and compare) both experiences at the recent Bristol CrimeFest. I’d been asked to present the first Petrona award for Scandinavian crime fiction, but later — to my genuine amazement — I heard my name being read out as winner of the HRF Keating award for editing the British Crime Writing Encylopedia — an award I made a point of sharing with my collaborators (some of whom were in the room) and, subsequently by e-mail; these included such luminaries as Andrew Taylor, Laura Wilson, Martin Edwards, Val McDermid, David Stuart Davies, Natasha Cooper and many other talented writers and critics who I’d inveigled on board despite the less-than-generous remuneration. I avoided a Gwyneth Paltrow moment (a short acceptance speech, with no tearful thanks to my grandmother, God or my therapist), but the retrospective embarrassment for me was my totally ingenuous conversation with Harry Keating’s widow before the event — I told Sheila how her late husband (doyen of crime critics) had been a real encouragement to me in writing the book, and had given me excellent advice. She smiled at me with a polite, unrevealing expression — I genuinely had not realised, really! — that there was probably a reason why Harry Keating’s widow was present at CrimeFest — to hand out the award, perhaps? And that she perhaps just might have known who’d won? So when I said to her that I didn’t fancy my chances, being up against such heavyweight competition as PD James, Declan Burke, John Connolly, Christopher Fowler, John Curran and the like, she wisely maintained a poker face that I now see may have concealed the thought: is he trying to pump me?
Who’s In, Who’s Out
When I took on the task of editing (and writing a good chunk of) British Crime Writing: An Encyclopaedia (Greenwood/ABC-Clio), I was queasily aware that I was making myself a hostage to fortune. The brief was to include every important British crime writer since the beginning of the genre (and before), along with as many forgotten names as I could muster. And, of course, as many current practitioners as I could persuade the publisher to include. Aye, there was the rub. Current practitioners! When the horse-trading began in earnest as to what special categories should be included (the use of the comma in Dorothy Sayers? British crime novels featuring umbrellas?), it quickly became clear that something would have to give in terms of inclusivity. Half a million words seemed to get allocated all too easily. And those writers who didn’t make the final cut no doubt crossed me off their Christmas card list. Back in the dawn of prehistory, when this encyclopaedia was a gleam in the publisher’s eye, this was not to be a solo job. My co-editor was to be none other than ace writer, bon viveur and flaneur, Peter Guttridge: but Peter (along with all his other skills) is perhaps more of a survivor than most, and fairly quickly decided that the enterprise was not for him (he said he’d be content to simply be an entry for his sardonic Nick Madrid novels, covered by somebody else). Peter’s chosen method of losing friends and alienating people was (then) by reviewing them for the Observer; I had half a million words here to perform a similar task on a nigh-cosmic scale.
Calling In Favours
The cadre of top crime-writing experts assembled for the task of writing the book were chosen (after much persuasion on my part) on the basis of their boundless enthusiasm for the genre, and (largely speaking) the authors they covered (all entries had individual credits) had their virtues rather than their demerits maximised in the essays. But while there are no hatchet jobs, many a dispassionate view was given. Generally speaking, I asked contributors to extol the virtues of writers that they admired, working with the brief that the reader will be seeking to extend their knowledge and pleasure in the genre. And while I had to tailor some entries to the house style of the publisher, the grumbling of the team was muted — only one contributor has subsequently cast me into the outer darkness. But then, if you’re looking for love, don’t become an editor.
Keeping Secrets: Presenting the First Petrona Award
But I had to give something that evening as well as receive. Ah, the logistics of presenting a fiction prize! Do you tell the winning publisher? How do you arrange for the lucky author to be present, if you don’t? And if you run into one of the eligible authors before the presentation ceremony, how do you keep a poker face (as Sheila Keating did with me) in order to give no indication that they have – or haven’t – hit the jackpot?
All of these questions had been very much on my mind of late, since I was asked to be a judge for the first Petrona award. Perhaps it was the fact that I was dotting the ‘i’s and crossing the ‘t’s on the last book I did, Nordic Noir, that prompted the persuasive Karen Meek to get me on board. Or perhaps the fact that my multi-country Scandinavian trips to interview as many important Nordic crime writers as I could positioned me favourably in her eyes (and I know she is fan of a previous book I did on the subject, Death in a Cold Climate – particularly the latter’s very translator-friendly-stance!). But I was happy to take part for a variety of reasons: firstly, my memory of Maxine Clarke, the remarkable young woman (who wrote as ‘Petrona’) after whom the award was named. Maxine died far too young, and the award (leaving aside its value in recognising the best work in translated crime fiction) was an apposite tribute. And there was the Karen Meek factor: her work hosting the site Euro Crime is a notable continuing achievement, with the site providing a resource that is second to none for details, reviews and bibliographies of Scandinavian crime authors. And my other judges (apart from Karen) had equal gravitas: Sarah Ward of Crimepieces and Kat Hall (who writes about Nesbo, Fossum and co. for Mrs Peabody Investigates). Between the four of us, we might modestly claim to have a finger on the pulse of Nordic noir.
The Nordic Godmother Wins
At CrimeFest I had been chatting with the talented (and extremely pleasant) Thomas Enger, who has made a considerable impact in this country with such books as Burned — but I had to be careful what I said, as I knew that even though he was the only nominated Scandinavian author in the room, he hadn’t won. Based on the late Maxine’s writing (rather than the thoughts of the current judges), the winner was to be the ebullient Liza Marklund for Last Will (Corgi, ably translated by Neil Smith), who shares the sobriquet ‘Godmother of Scandinavian crime fiction’ with Maj Sjöwahl. I had last spoken to the energetic Liza when I moderated a panel with her at Harrogate, but she was not in the country, and I handed the award to her UK editor Emma Buckley.
After presenting the award at this very congenial crime-writing event (the feeling between the four judges was that the Petrona Award had got off to a solid start – and that the next choices (this time by the judges rather than by the late Maxine) meant much heated discussion was in store for us. And I’ve noted that paperbacks of Scandinavian crime fiction are already starting to appear with the legend ‘Shortlisted for the Petrona Award’!
The Petrona Award 2013: The Shortlist
- Pierced, by Thomas Enger, tr. Charlotte Barslund (Faber and Faber)
- Black Skies, by Arnaldur Indridason, tr. Victoria Cribb (Harvill Secker)
- Last Will, by Liza Marklund, tr. Neil Smith (Corgi)
Real Readers talk about Lethal Profit, by Alex Blackmore