The CWA Ellis Peters Historical Dagger for Historical Detective Fiction 1999/2000

Richard Lee

A judge’s report by RICHARD LEE: What it is and how it works.

The prize is sponsored by the Estate of Ellis Peters, and by her two UK publishers, Little Brown and Headline.

It is run by the CWA – The Crime Writers’ Association (further details about the CWA can be found at the end of this article), which runs a series of ‘Dagger’ prizes. There is the Gold Dagger Award for the best crime novel of the year. The Diamond Dagger for lifetime achievement. The John Creasy Memorial Dagger, for the best first novel that is also a crime novel.

The Ellis Peters Historical Dagger is a recent addition to the armoury, only in its second year. The first winner was Lindsey Davis’ Two For The Lions, seventh outing in the best-selling Falco series of novels set in first century Rome.

My fellow judges were crime novelist Gwendoline Butler, who also writes under the pseudonym of Jennie Melville; Lindsey Davis (each winner will be asked to be a judge in the following year); and Susanna Yager, crime fiction reviewer for The Sunday Telegraph, and chair of the judging panel.

The preliminary stages of the judging were conducted by email. As we read the books, we emailed our fellow judges and shared our opinions. Finally, we drew up a short-list and got together to decide on the winner.

The winner was then announced a month or so later at a champagne reception at London Crime bookshop, Crime in Store.

What the judges read:

To be eligible, the book had to be a novel with a crime theme and a historical background of any place or period up to 1965, published in the UK for the first time between 1st January 1999 and 31st December 1999.

In all there were twenty-nine books to read. Most of these were submitted by publishers, but there were also a number of titles that were called in by the judges. (Publishers, apparently, are not always to be relied upon; indeed, last year’s winning title, Lindsey Davis tells me, was one that the judges called in…) The problem with publishers was not just the occasional patch of apathy (understandable, perhaps, with a relatively new prize), but that some publishers really didn’t like to think that anything that was literary had anything to do with crime (where have I heard this before?).

So – do I think we missed anything? The answer has to be “I don’t know”.

Unfortunately, it is not really fair that I should print a full list of the books submitted for the prize (it might lead to authors murdering their publishers, or, worse, authors and publishers murdering me) – but I would be intrigued to hear from any reader who feels that there are any significant omissions from our short-list. So do write to me and say…

What the judges didn’t like:

What emerged over the course of the judging was a remarkable similarity in the qualities that we admired, and the failings that irritated us most. Again, any direct reference to specific books would probably result in a surfeit of unhistorical blood. The following, though, may prove useful as a sketchy guide to the do nots of the genre.

* Firstly, we didn’t like authorial hobby-horses, especially if they were anachronistic. (gratuitous feminism, for example)
* Secondly, we didn’t like spurious love interest. Authors of both sexes were guilty of perfunctory romance plots.
* Thirdly – more people failed by trying for too much, than by doing too little: too many characters, too much story, too much research, too many speeches
* Finally, some authors didn’t get the ‘feel’ of the period right. Actually, I’m not certain we always agreed on which authors had succeeded and which hadn’t – but we all thought it was important.

What the Judges were really looking for:

In a way, you’ll guess this from the short list, but Lindsey Davis probably put it best for all of us:

…exuberance, intelligence, good writing, complex relationships, a keen sense of period even when there is a glance to the present, humour (for me), good women, bad men, some good men too, some bad women too, suspense, and total escapism so you suddenly realise it’s three in the morning and you forgot to go to sleep. Plus, in our case, a mystery that someone or other has to try to solve – probably with an unexpected twist when they finally do.

The Lunch:

It may be true that there’s no such thing as a free lunch – and I certainly did enough reading for mine. But the lunch was great. If the HNS ever runs a competition like this, we’ll certainly have a lunch like this, with a publisher paying, if we possibly can! And we did some work too. We went along to the lunch with a ‘long list’ of books we favoured. Over the meal we whittled these down to a short list of seven.

The Short List:

We actually wrote the following press release at the lunch, which perhaps says more for our bravery than our wisdom, but these are the things that we wanted to praise particularly in the books we short-listed.

Rennie Airth, River Of Darkness
Wonderfully conveys the atmosphere of England after the First World War. The hunt for a multi-murderer is led by a Scotland Yard detective, himself psychologically damaged by his experiences in the trenches. The judges admired the momentum with which the plot is carried forward and the authentic feel of the social setting.

Clare Curzon, Guilty Knowledge
A body is found in the grounds of a quiet country house in the twilight of Edwardian England. The self-absorption of the spoilt central character affects and ultimately ruins the lives of everyone around her. The judges particularly liked the elegance of the writing, and the narrative suspense.

Gillian Linscott, Absent Friends
Suffragettes have at last won the vote and Nell Bray stands for Parliament, backed by the widow of a former candidate, who has just been gruesomely murdered with an exploding firework. The quality of the research, the spirited main character, and the optimism of the narrative appealed to the judges – as did the fact that it was a particularly good story.

Pierre Magnan, The Murdered House
Translated from the French by Patricia Clancy, this novel begins stunningly in an isolated Provencal inn at the end of the 19th-century. Twenty-five years later the sole survivor of the massacre that took place there returns to his village from the War and learns the secret of his horrific past. The judges were impressed by the power of the writing and the intensity of the emotions.

Hannah March, The Devil’s Highway
A lively adventure story set in the 18th-century English countryside. This novel had an absorbing, hard-to-solve puzzle, well-drawn characters and was an enjoyable read from start to finish.

Michael Pearce, Death Of An Effendi
A witty portrayal of Edwardian Cairo as the British head of the Secret Police (the Mamur Zapt) investigates the mysterious death of a Russian visitor during a duck-shoot. The judges enjoyed the author’s light touch and the skilful depiction of the tension between the colonial administrators and the local population.

Laura Wilson, A Little Death
A first novel that spans half a century from the 1890s and follows the intertwined lives of the three principal characters. The judges felt that the author had successfully created the claustrophobic atmosphere in which the characters were impelled towards their shocking fate.

And the Winner was…

Gillian Linscott


Some Conclusions:

The first thing that is noteworthy is that the short list were almost universally 20th century stories. Now I, personally, would declare a preference for earlier history. I’d love to have short-listed an ancient or a medieval story. But this year, we agreed, writers were doing the 20th Century better. I wonder if there is a reason for that?

Secondly – and I guess this is a problem with all competitions – there is always the dilemma of judging carrots against onions. Looking at the short-list, for example, one could easily sub-divide the books again (my fellow judges rightly accused me of being a dreadful ‘categoriser’!). Rennie Airth’s book, for example, is an excellently dark thriller, and for a violent, exciting read, it is hard to beat. If we had been judging the prize for sheer pace, I think it might have won. On the other hand, if we had been judging for atmosphere, I thought Pierre Magnon’s Murdered House was a remarkable tour de force. The macabre passions of a Provencal village have rarely been done so well, and the book has some lovely set-pieces. I could go on. For me, Laura Wilson’s book was the best on our short-list for creating a complete authorial world, and was probably my ‘literary’ favourite. Clare Curzon’s Guilty Knowledge delightfully juxtaposed outward respectability with an inner world of unwanted secrets, and the elegance of her writing beautifully complimented the themes. Michael Pearce’s book was perhaps the funniest on the list, and Hannah March’s the best ‘whodunit’ puzzle.

But Gillian Linscott won, because, the judges agreed, hers was the best book overall.

It has humour and readability, and in Nell Bray, an extremely likeable main character. The mystery is neatly plotted and satisfyingly concluded, and the relationships are tenderly drawn. Best of all for me, though, was the way that all the elements of the book worked together. The book was really about England in the aftermath of the Great War – how combatants and non-combatants found themselves in a changed world, and their problems with re-adjusting.

There are seven earlier books featuring Nell Bray and her suffragette struggles. I’ll be reading all of them.

The third, inevitable conclusion of my experience in judging, is that we MUST devise a similar prize for historical fiction.

Up till now I’ve let myself be dissuaded from doing this. There are already too many prizes vying for attention, people say. Also, having talked to people involved in other prizes, they all stress how much work is involved. Well, yes. But it still seems worth doing.

* It is important for the writer. Lindsey Davis, first winner of the prize, was most movingly eloquent on how important she felt it to have been judged successful by her peers. Gillian Linscott was equally delighted.
* It is important for publishers. Prize-winners almost inevitably sell more books. If it can work for various unreadable Booker Prize Winners, it can surely work equally well for the genres – and indeed, the CWA Daggers have proved it again and again.
* Finally, it is important for readers. It is a way of advertising a number of recommended titles within a genre. And it is a way of promoting the genre itself.

What should our prize be called? My own vote would be for the Robert Graves Prize for Historical Fiction. But I’m open to suggestions.

About the CWA:

The CWA (Crime Writers’ Association) is open to all published authors who write about crime – real or fictional – and exists to promote the prestige and appreciation of crime writing.
The winners of the other major ‘daggers’ this year were:
Gold Dagger (for best crime novel of the year): Robert Wilson, A Small Death in Lisbon; Diamond Dagger (for lifetime achievement): Peter Lovesey.
Membership: TOWN MEMBERS (living within 50 miles of London): 50.00 pounds per annum. COUNTRY and OVERSEAS MEMBERS: 40.00 pounds per annum. ASSOCIATE MEMBERS (UK only): 60.00 pounds per annum.

(c)2000 Richard Lee

First published in Solander: The Magazine of the Historical Novel Society, Issue 7, Spring 2000.

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