Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Reading for the Dashiell Hammett award: 173 mysteries, 9 months, and 5 choices

            Last April, I signed on to read for the 2015 Dashiel Hammett award, which is given each year by the International Association of Crime Writers’ North American Branch. Our task: to agree among the five of us volunteers on the five best books of 2015 to move forward to the three celebrity readers who would choose the winner. We volunteers would be asked to read 70-80 books over 8 months. I said yes. I love reading crime fiction and who doesn't love free books?
            Things went along quite easily the first few months. We received a book or two a week. I’d read a ways into the book and if it was good, keep reading. If not, I’d put in a think-about pile or a definitely not pile. Piece of cake.
            By the end of the first 7 months, we’d gotten about 60 books and anticipated a push of 15 or maybe 20 to come at the deadline. We were completely unprepared for the deluge that followed. Between Thanksgiving and the deadline, Dec 15, we each received 113 books. One box arrived on the deadline with 28 books in it from St. Martin's Press. 
            In those first months, I HAD read about 40 pages before setting a book aside into the read-further pile or the no-way pile. About every fifth book was worth a second look. But at Thanksgiving, I pared the first read down to 20 pages and after Dec 1, I moved to five pages before saying maybe or no way. I wasn’t getting lazy. I just didn’t have the luxury to read all day. I had my paid job and my own writing to do. I'd also discovered by then that five pages would almost always answer three questions. First, did it truly fit our category of mystery/suspense/thriller? If it did, was there anything intriguing, new, or unusual about the opening and the hook? Then, if that was a yes, was it well enough written that I could enjoy it?
            Using this culling method, by December 15, I had read seven books in their entirety, had set aside 42 for a deeper read, and discarded the rest. Surprisingly among those discarded were all of the books by the big-name authors except for one, which I'd already read in October and liked very much. Over the next month, I read more of the 42. Curiously, the percentage of real contenders out of that group, which included those published by the biggest publishers, was no bigger than the percentage out of the smaller presses and the self-published: less than 1 in 10.
            Ten of 15 books just didn’t fit the genre; having some suspense in the plot or a puzzle for a character to solve makes it neither a mystery nor a suspense novel. Many of them had a prosaic beginning or took way too long to get to the story. And many of the books were poorly written and many, perhaps even most, were poorly edited. At the beginning, I worried that my 20 years as a professional editor might prejudice me against some of the books that my colleagues, who were all writers but not editors, might like, but that didn’t turn out to be the case. There were also books I really wanted to like: authors I’m fond of, ideas that were original, but if they weren’t clearly great, they weren’t clearly a contender, I set them aside.
            By the end, I had read 20 books all the way through and had 12 books, or 7%, that I could consider for the award. This created in me an odd mixture of relief and disappointment. I was disappointed that so many marginal books are being published and I was disappointed that there were relatively so few to choose from. I was also relieved that in the end, I had a very manageable number to read and consider.  
            In the last weeks of reading, the other volunteers and I began sharing our contenders. We wanted to be sure if a couple of us were keen on a particular book that others had set aside, that we’d have the time to reconsider it. I read two others that colleagues liked a lot, but neither of them made my final list.
            Finally, in the middle of January we each submitted our top 10 ranked in order and our stalwart leader tallied it up. We had three clear winners and a second group of four that were close in score. We agreed as a group to nominate the top two scores of that group of four to complete our charge. Among the finalists: one book by a woman, one by a Canadian, one by a well-known mystery writer. Two were self-published, one was from a small press, two from large presses. I am very proud to say that the five finalists were all on my list of 10 (with my rankings of #1, 2, 5, 6, 7).
            As a reader, fiction writer, manuscript editor, I found this a very interesting experience. It was interesting to see what the big publishers are thinking will make them money and reassuring to see that really good books are coming out of self-publishing. I won’t donate this amount to such an experience again, but I’m not sorry I did it. Now I just have to decided what I’m going to do with the 173 books stacked in my living room.

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