For decades, Booker-nominated authors have been tangled up in criminal activity. But why has a traditional crime novel never won the prize?

Written by Michael Prodger

Publication date and time: Published
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Over the course of its 54-year history, the Booker Prize has become the focus of strong opinions - and opinions breed criticism. One of the most consistent reproaches aimed at the prize is that no crime novel has ever won. The inference being that the judges - more than 240 of them over the years - have consistently ignored the most popular form of fiction for reasons of snobbery and literary elitism, as if wilfully determined to keep innumerable readers at arm’s length. The prize, the complaint went, was for what used to be called literary fiction only.

While that term has faded from common usage as the understanding has spread that definitions and genres are too often restrictive or ill-defined and that novels are multifarious things that can traverse many areas at once, the adherents of crime writing still regularly air their grievance. They point to the fact that such significant authors as P.D. James, Ian Rankin, Mark Billingham, Mo Hayder, Robert Galbraith and Mick Herron have never been longlisted. Nor, since the prize was opened up to writers from around the world in 2014, have any of the big-name Americans, the likes of Jeffery Deaver and James Patterson

In 2018, Snap by Belinda Bauer was longlisted for the Booker. The fact that Bauer, a winner of both the Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger Award and the Theakston’s Old Peculiar Crime Novel of the Year Award, had been nominated for what seemed to be an orthodox crime novel – about a boy who sets out to discover his mother’s murderer – was seen as highly unusual. Bauer herself recalled getting ‘some flak on Twitter… “How dare Belinda Bauer think she can be on this longlist?” That sort of thing.’ 

Belinda Bauer

However, the Booker Prize has in fact long been tangled up in crime. Although there is some truth to the crime aficionados’ accusation, it really only applies to the Booker Prize’s early decades when cultural categories were more fixed. From the 1990s onwards, crime fiction, or at least books in which crime is a prime motivator, have made regular appearances on the longlists and shortlists.  

Back in 1989, for example, John Banville, who would go on to win the Prize in 2005 with The Sea, was shortlisted for The Book of Evidence, a story of art, theft and murder related by an unreliable narrator. Then in 1992, another Irish novelist, Patrick McCabe, was shortlisted for The Butcher Boy, which follows Francis ‘Francie’ Brady, a schoolboy beset by violent fantasies, as he progresses to incarceration in a mental institution and eventually murder of the most gruesome kind. With different names on their dustjackets, both books could realistically have been relabelled ‘crime fiction’. 

The Booker Prize’s embrace of criminality really took off in the new millennium. In 2000, Michael Collins’s The Keepers of Truth was shortlisted; in 2003 Graham Swift, who had won the Prize in 1996 with Last Orders, was longlisted for The Light of Day, and so was Julie Myerson for Something Might Happen; and in 2008 Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith was longlisted. As the decade turned, more nominations followed: Richard House was longlisted for The Kills in 2013; Ottessa Moshfegh and Graeme Macrae Burnet both made the 2016 shortlist with Eileen and His Bloody Project respectively; Percival Everett was shortlisted in 2022 with The Trees and the Argentinian writer Claudia Pineiro made the International Booker Prize shortlist that year with Elena Knows. A criminal event is central to all of them. 

Percival Everett

Crime is now everywhere. Even Shehan Karunatilaka’s The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, the Booker Prize 2022 winner, is a whodunnit of sorts, albeit an unconventional one

Along the way, one of the great names in crime writing, Ruth Rendell, who also wrote as Barbara Vine, was longlisted with A Guilty Thing Surprised for the 2010 Lost Man Booker Prize – an award to correct a chronological quirk when the prize organisation changed and several likely contenders became inadmissible. Rendell had by then already shown that she was no bearer of grudges and agreed to serve as a Booker Prize judge in 1995. Indeed, the grandest dames of British crime fiction seem to have an equable core: P.D. James was chair of the 1987 judges and Val McDermid was a judge in 2018. 

One writer, whose works combine crime, espionage and psychological thriller, took unusual steps to inure himself to the possibility of prize rejection. John le Carré famously instructed his publishers not to submit him for literary prizes, including the Booker Prize. With novels such as Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy of 1974 (the prize was awarded that year to two winner, Nadine Gordimer and Stanley Middleton) and A Perfect Spy (the 1986 Booker Prize went to Kingsley Amis) he would surely have been a contender. In 2011, the judges of the International Booker Prize, then an award for a body or work rather than a single book, thought they had found a way around his injunction and put him on their shortlist. Le Carré immediately responded that while he was enormously flattered: ‘I do not compete for literary prizes and have therefore asked for my name to be withdrawn’. 

What the 2011 IBP judges, and all the others who chose books with a strong element of criminality to them, have tacitly acknowledged it that the old genres of fiction have long been infinitely more fluid than the shelves of bookshops like to suggest. Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall was certainly an exercise in historical fiction, except not within the narrow parameters of the category as it was once understood; the same applies to the magical realism of George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo or the dystopia of Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments, or any number of Booker Prize nominated books that co-opt and adapt different literary traditions.

Ruth Rendell

Crime is now everywhere. Even Shehan Karunatilaka’s The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, the Booker Prize 2022 winner, is a whodunnit of sorts, albeit an unconventional one, centred on a character who wakes up in the afterlife not just dead but dismembered and faces a race against time to find out who murdered him before eternity beckons.  

The best crime fiction has always looked beyond itself, too – to psychological complexity and evocative and deeply researched settings, and to social commentary and reflections on the human condition. 

If John Banville were starting out as a novelist today, would he, one wonders, still write his books under two names – John Banville for his more orthodox fiction and Benjamin Black for his crime novels? After all, his most recent crime novel, Snow (2020), was published as a Banville, not as a Black. As he told an interviewer, ‘When I found that I liked the Blacks, I said to myself, “Why do I need this rascal anyway?” So I shut him in a room with a pistol, a phial of sleeping pills and a bottle of Scotch, and that was the end of him.’ 

Perhaps the main reason an out-and-out crime/detective/police procedural novel has yet to win the Booker Prize lies in the nature of the judging process itself. At the heart of every crime fiction is a misdemeanour and the often elaborate dance of pursuit and evasion between perpetrator and justice seeker. Whatever the beauties of the prose, the breadth of the world in which the action occurs and the ingenuity of the plotting, a crime and its solution remains the raison d’etre

John Banville

The judging process, however, is not a usual reading one. Each submitted book is read at least once to come up with a longlist, those 12 or 13 books are read a second time to choose a shortlist, and those six books are read at least once more before winner is chosen. Not many books can stand three readings in a matter of months without their merits losing their lustre. Nor is it humanly possible for the judges to recapture that sense of surprise and satisfaction when all the strands of a good crime novel come together and the theft or murder – or whatever the act of lawbreaking – is solved. Subsequent readings will always lack that frisson and the suspense can never be as suspenseful again. Books with a crime as their main subject put themselves at a disadvantage. 

Nor have authors themselves always been helpful in removing the barriers that have kept crime fiction at a slight distance. Graham Greene divided his fiction into his ‘entertainments’ (thrillers such as Stamboul Train and Our Man in Havana) and the ‘novels’ (such as The Power and the Glory and The End of the Affair) that he thought would be his real legacy. John Banville has followed suit and claimed furthermore that he writes his crime novels both more quickly than his other works and that he regards them as ‘cheap fiction’. But then again, as a novelist, perhaps he is just toying with anyone who investigates his motives. 

What is clear, however, is that the Booker has a both a long criminal past and absolutely no desire to reform. Indeed, it looks forward to a murderous future, too. 

Shehan Karunatilaka