CRIME NOVEL wins Man Booker Prize!

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:

  1. Moody has arrived on a ship captained by a suspected murderer.
  2. Moody has legal training: he agrees to listen to the mens’ stories and to become ‘the unraveler’ … or might we say investigator?
  3. 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.

The author with slogan…

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.

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31 thoughts on “CRIME NOVEL wins Man Booker Prize!

    • Ah, Vanda – that’s really lovely to hear. Congratulations! I bet you’re all incredibly proud! And yes, crime at last – a double jackpot.

      I’ll be interested to see the coverage of the win in NZ – do let us know if anything juicy and crime-related pops up.

  1. I missed this, too. This is excellent news, Mrs. P! I am thinking of tackling it but 832 pages !@#% is a lot. I’d need a week off from work but even that would not be suffice to finish it with all the distractions that there are in life.

    • Hi Keishon. Yes, the length does seem a bit daunting, but the reveiws I read don’t seem to think that this is problematic, due to the novel’s clever structure and plot-driven narrative. It’ll require a deep breath and lots of commitment though, I agree!

  2. I am interested to hear that The Luminaries won the Man Booker Prize, and by a young woman from New Zealand, which makes it even more intriguing.
    However, I am daunted by the 832 pages, which at this stage would take me a month to read, realistically with life’s demands and tasks, even reading the daily newspapers. And I read about “the occult” figuring in this book, a word, which usually sends me scurrying away.
    But i will withhold any opinions until I read reviews at well-read crime fiction readers’ blogs, and even then I’ll try not to have an opinion unless I read it.

    • Yes, a pretty long read (although I tend to view that as getting great value for money!). Hopefully there will be some reviews on crime blogs soon. There are lots out in the papers already (see my comment to TracyK above).

      I think it’s great that a woman has won the prize at such a young age – what an achievement!

  3. When Peter Temple won the Miles Franklin, the biggest of the big L literary prizes here in Australia, the judges bent over backwards to explain how it wasn’t *really* a crime novel (it was and Temple owned that fact deliciously in his acceptance speech). We were told he won because he really *worked* the language (which I always felt sounded vaguely BDSM) and there were the usual *transcended the genre* observations as well.

    The best though, was this hilarious response from former chairman of the Booker judges John Sutherland on whether the MF win would be followed by a Booker win for crime anytime soon:

    “The twice I’ve been on the Booker panel they [crime novels] weren’t submitted,” he said. “There’s a feeling that it’s like putting a donkey into the Grand National … They just don’t have quite the same class system in Australia, and perhaps they don’t have the same class distinctions in Australian letters,”

    http://www.theguardian.com/books/2010/jun/25/miles-franklin-booker-prize-crime

    Nice looking donkey, eh! 😉

    • A lovely looking donkey! Oh my goodness: I nearly choked on my cornflakes this morning when I read that quote from John Sutherland. He’s clearly been on one of those ‘How to Make Friends and Influence People’ courses. The truth of the matter is that Australia has led the way (clearly a right-thinking and highly cultured nation).

      Thanks so much for flagging up Peter Temple’s win (I hadn’t realised to my shame) and providing a link to the Guardian article: it provides a very useful (and entertaining) overview of all the debates and I will add it to the end of the post.

  4. Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries was mentioned as a possible contender for the Man Booker prize on ITV3’s The Crime Thriller Club one Monday evening, and I thought then I hope she wins it. I don’t know why Man Booker is so snooty about crime, isn’t it one of the biggest, if not THE biggest selling genre? Anyway I’m going to give it a go. I’m retired (smug face) so I have all the time in the world to read an epic story…

    • Thanks, kathy.p – I didn’t know that. Interesting (and good) that the novel had been picked up by things like the ITV Crime Thriller Club in advance of the prize.

      I wonder if one of the reasons why Man Booker is snooty is precisely *because* crime is the biggest selling genre. The fact that it is *popular* clashes with the idea of literary fiction being intellectually superior and rather exclusive – something that is read and understood by a small educated elite. Ergo if a certain type of fiction is popular it can’t be any good.

      I’m glad to hear that you’re going to give the book a go – look forward very much to your views!

  5. One of the bad things about having a Kindle is that it makes it just way too easy to buy a new book. And now I have this one! Of course, I also have about 150 or so more in that little thing! But I think, once I finish the Iain M Banks novel I’m reading, I’ll tackle this one.

  6. Heaven save us from snobbery! A good book is a good book, regardless of what genre it happens to fall under for bookselling purposes (even though I may have my preferred genres, I can ‘cheat’ on them).

  7. I agree, and would also like a T-shirt that says, “So many (good) books, so little time.”
    I can’t wait to read the blog and comments about “The Luminaries.” I am so glad that a woman and a young woman at that, and from New Zealand, won the Man Booker Prize.

  8. I did scan the review in the indie last week, mainly because they headlined it with a mention of ‘Deadwood’ which is one of my all time faves, had just finished watching series 3 again. Completely missed the crime connection, to late to read the whole thing again, mainly about the
    author rather than a review of the book. Will get round to reading it, BH have a copy!
    Re the Booker there was a more ‘populist’ approach about 2011, ‘Snowdrops’ by AD Miller made the last 6, but it seems to have got back to normal.

  9. I read this while back home in Oz recently (I read very fast, so its length was a bonus!), and have come across as extremely erudite on several occasions since then for having read the Booker-winner, when in reality it was just a coincidence – I was home with time on my hands when there was an article on the book and the author in the Sydney Morning Herald.

    Is it crime? I’m not actually sure. Is every work by Dickens with a body and and a lawyer (or a gaol?) a crime novel? It’s certainly neo-Victorian (Wilkie Collins, perhaps? I’ve seen at least one review describe it as a ‘in some ways a Victorian whodunit’), but I wonder if this is a case where genres are more than usually unhelpful. I found the structure and the language left more of a lasting impression than the crime – there are relatively few events that would work as the pivot for this sort of story, I think, if you need/want multiple perspectives and silence at the centre, and most of them involve people dying. It’s a very high concept novel, and the concept is somewhat strenuous, but it works, and it absorbed me very fast. Certainly faster than Wilkie Collins, actually, although I think part of that is the New Zealand setting.

    It’s not that I don’t think crime can’t be great literature – or that crime-less literature is somehow more superior to murders read by masses – just, in this case, ‘whodunit’ didn’t strike me as a particularly driving force. (I’m a more patient reader than many, but once you hit 800 pages the journey has to be at least as good as the destination, and what happened wasn’t what kept me reading.) I’m possibly not explaining this very well, but there you go.

    • Thanks very much for your comment, Lauren. You’re the first person I know to have actually read the book, and it’s extremely interesting to hear your impressions, especially in relation to the issue of genre. I’ll obviously have to read it myself before being able to respond properly, but it sounds to me like it’s probably a hybrid crime novel – one that draws strongly on elements of the crime genre, but that doesn’t make the driving force of the genre (the question of whodunnit) its raison d’etre.

      Your reference to Dickens’ works highlights that most tricky of questions: when is a crime novel a crime novel? And I think the answer is in the eye of the beholder to a certain extent: some might view a particular Dickens novel as a crime novel because it thematises criminality / guilt / justice in relation to the society of the time; others might reject that view because their view of a crime novel is one that sticks to a stricter formula (body / detective / identification of murderer). I have a very elastic view of the genre myself, because I think that some of the most interesting crime novels are the ones that take the traditional formula and do something innovative with it. I’m hoping very much that The Luminaries falls into that category!

      The book’s on my birthday wish list so hopefully the family will deliver shortly. It looks like it will come in useful as a handy doorstop as well…

  10. Pingback: Marlon James wins the 2015 Man Booker Prize for A Brief History of Seven Killings | Mrs. Peabody Investigates

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