CWA International Dagger shortlist 2011and predicted winner

The shortlist for the CWA International Dagger was announced at CrimeFest in Bristol on Friday evening (click on title to see my review):

Andrea Camilleri – The Wings of the Sphinx tr. Stephen Sartarelli
Ernesto Mallo – Needle in a Haystack tr. Jethro Soutar
Jean-Francois Parot – The Saint-Florentin Murders tr. Howard Curtis
Roslund-Hellstrom – Three Seconds tr. Kari Dickson
Valerio Varesi – River of Shadows tr. Joseph Farrell
Fred Vargas – An Uncertain Place tr. Sian Reynolds
Domingo Villar – Death on a Galician Shore tr. Sonia Soto

The full list of eligible titles is at Euro Crime. Not all these titles will have been submitted for the prize by their publishers, but immediately it can be seen that the choices are independent ones: no Mankell, Fossum or Nesbo, who one might have expected to be automatic selections, and other well-known authors are omitted (eg Lackberg, Marklund and Sigurdardottir). Of the titles selected, I’ve read five and am currently reading An Uncertain Place by Fred Vargas, which I’m enjoying so far (more so than some of her previous novels). I am not sure if I’ll read The Saint-Florentin Murders, but will check it out.

Of the five I have read, any would get my vote for the winner (which will be announced at Harrogate crime festival in July). All five have many points to recommend them and a few to count against them – there is no perfect storm of a winner (such as is sometimes provided by Johan Theorin and Arnaldur Indridason, both past CWA winners in various competitions). My two favourites of the eligible titles, Frozen Moment by Camilla Ceder (tr Marlaine Delargy) and Mercy by Jussi Adler-Olsen (tr Lisa Hartford) did not make the shortlist (note, they may not have been submitted).

On balance I think my favourite is Needle in a Haystack by Ernesto Mallo. It’s got a solid, well-constructed crime plot, engaging characters, a social-political conscience and bags of tension. The ending is a real cliffhanger which has certainly continued to puzzle me. The Argentina setting makes the book distinctive from previous years, in which European titles have won.

I’d be happy for any of these excellent novels to win the prize, but the following explains why I prefer Needle in a Haystack.

Three Seconds: a scorchingly paced thriller, very exciting to read, but for me marred by an unsympathetic protagonist, unconvincingly convoluted political machinations, and some unlikely plot elements.
The Wings of the Sphinx: a charming, readable novel but not the greatest crime plot – Montalbano relies on the intuitive flash as usual.
Death on a Galician Shore: wonderful sense of place, atmosphere and traditional life, a well-put-together novel, and lovely family relationship between three men. The weakness is in the obvious crime plot, which lacks excitement or surprises. The byplay between the police characters is amusing but not as well done as it is in the first novel (Water Blue Eyes) in the series.
River of Shadows: again, a wonderful sense of place and atmosphere, particularly the river throughout and the old villages in the last section. The protagonist is both flat and not nice or nasty enough to gel (a hint of misogyny?), and though the plot is well constructed and suitably twisty, the action of the novel is too dependent on numerous trips between towns and repeated interviews.
An Uncertain Place: The only book on the shortlist by a woman. I have not finished this book yet and am enjoying it, but it is full of Vargas’s usual eccentricites and strange “cosy”/violent/academic assessment mix that makes me regard her novels as fables or allegories, rather than “proper” crime fiction. Also, she’s won the prize too often in previous years!

Well, I was right in my prediction last year (The Darkest Room by Johan Theorin) so I don’t expect to be so prescient two years running. Time will tell.

*Post updated. Here is the official announcement from the CWA, with an explanation as to why each shortlisted book was chosen.

All my previous International Dagger posts.