I was working late last night and found myself having a midnight snack in the company of The Guardian newspaper. In the course of browsing, I realised that I’d missed the announcement for the Man Booker Prize, and was interested to see the winner was The Luminaries (Granta) by Eleanor Catton, a New Zealander who is now the youngest winner in the prize’s history (just 28), with its longest ever book (a corking 832 pages).
My eye then fell upon this bit of text: ‘The Luminaries is, at the plot level, a page-turning, suspenseful story about a series of unsolved crimes, written in the manner of a Victorian sensation novel. In January 1866, in the New Zealand town of Hokitika, a Scot called Moody walks into a hotel smoking room to find twelve men ruminating on a series of mysterious events: the disappearance of a rich prospector, the death of a wealthy recluse, the beating to a pulp of a prostitute. All the men are connected to these events and bound to each other’.
On digging around a bit further I discovered the following little details:
- Moody has arrived on a ship captained by a suspected murderer.
- Moody has legal training: he agrees to listen to the mens’ stories and to become ‘the unraveler’ … or might we say investigator?
- The narrative features a tense courtroom drama.
My first thought was: this would be a great book to review on the crime blog. My second thought was: that means A CRIME NOVEL HAS WON THE MAN BOOKER PRIZE!
I then rushed over to the Man Booker Prize webpage, only to find near invisible acknowledgement of Catton’s engagement with crime. While there is passing mention of Wilkie Collins, of mystery and a lawsuit, the idea that the novel incorporates and plays with significant aspects of the crime genre has been written out. The word CRIME does not feature once. Might this be evidence of an in-built Man Booker ‘prestigious literary prize’ prejudice? Its slogan is ‘fiction at its finest’, and it looks suspiciously like they couldn’t bear to elevate crime into that elite category.
Contrast the refreshing take of blogger Danylmc over at The Dim-Post, who asserts:
‘The Luminaries is primarily a very entertaining crime novel … It’s written in the style of a Victorian novel, but I suspect that two of the biggest influences were the golden-age HBO shows Deadwood and The Wire. Deadwood because of the frontier goldrush town setting, and The Wire because Catton is interested in using crime stories to examine how the society she’s writing about really works in terms of power-relationships and influence’.
Hurray! That’s more like it!
I can’t help but think of Ian Rankin here, who for many years has bemoaned the sidelining of crime fiction when it comes to major literary prizes. Well Ian, I think we’re well over half way there now. While The Luminaries can be classified as a historical novel, a Victorian sensation novel, a literary novel, or even a postmodern novel, we can also definitely view it as a crime novel. So I’ll say it again: A CRIME NOVEL HAS WON THE MAN BOOKER, and that’s really something to be celebrated. Now all we have to do is persuade ‘literary’ prize-givers that ‘crime’ is the door to rich and wonderfully innovative narratives, rather than a dirty word to be avoided. We’ve known it all along, and after reading The Luminaries, they really should too.
Update: PM Newton has kindly drawn my attention to a 2010 article in The Guardian entitled ‘Could Miles Franklin turn the Booker Prize to Crime?‘. It appeared just after Peter Temple’s success in winning Australia’s top literary prize, the Miles Franklin Award, with his crime novel Truth. The article provides a nice overview of the crime fiction/literary prize debates, and is worth reading for John Sutherland’s ‘donkey-in-the-Grand-National’ comment alone.