Crime fiction and the Man Booker 2018

In my series of posts featuring awards for crime fiction I hadn’t particularly anticipated that I would also be including the Man Booker. In their own words “the prize is awarded to what is, in the opinion of the judges, the best novel of the year written in English and published in the UK”, it is perceived as being for ‘literary fiction’ and as such has been criticised for excluding books in more commercial genres.

In recent years there have been signs that this is changing. In 2015 A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James took the prize, and if not crime fiction it certainly shares some similarities with the genre. In 2016 His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet made it on to the shortlist – although historical and despite the author’s apparent argument against it being a crime novel – was as much a crime novel as many others. In the same year Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh was also shortlisted, with a thriller if not crime fiction (there is a fine line there somewhere) which was, according to the author, a deliberate exercise in playing with the format of commercial fiction to get the attention of a big publisher. The longlist for 2017 included Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor, which had all the trappings of crime fiction but developed into something more ‘literary’.

So what of 2018? The first noteworthy change is the inclusion of crime writer Val McDermid on the judging panel. And the second is that the longlist includes a book that is definitely and unequivocally a crime novel (and which coincidentally includes a quote from Val McDermid on the cover) and that’s Snap by Belinda Bauer.  Why shouldn’t this be crime fiction’s year?

The full longlist is:

From the UK:

Snap by Belinda Bauer (Bantam Press)

Milkman by Anna Burns (Faber & Faber)

In Our Mad And Furious City by Guy Gunaratne (Tinder Press)

Everything Under by Daisy Johnson (Jonathan Cape)

The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh (Hamish Hamilton)

The Long Take Robin Robertson by (Picador)

From the USA

Sabrina by Nick Drnaso (Granta Books)

The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner (Jonathan Cape)

The Overstory by Richard Powers  (William Heinemann)

From Canada

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan (Serpent’s Tail)

Warlight by Michael Ondaatje (Jonathan Cape)

From Ireland

Normal People by Sally Rooney (Faber & Faber)

From A Low And Quiet Sea by Donal Ryan (Doubleday Ireland)

The timeline for the award is longlist announced 24 July, shortlist announced 20 September and the announcement of winner takes place in London’s Guildhall at a black-tie dinner on 16 October.


His Bloody Project – Graeme Macrae Burnet

Title – His Bloody Project

Author – Graeme Macrae Burnet

Published – 2015

Genre – Historical crime fiction

I bought this book because it’s not often that something shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize appeals to me, but billed as a historical thriller / crime novel it fitted in with my regular reading choices.

The story is set in a remote hamlet in the Scottish Highlands where the inhabitants work their crofts under the control of the local Laird in a hand-to-mouth state of poverty. The book itself purports to be the first publication of the memoir of seventeen-year-old Roddy Macrae, written while he was awaiting trial, as well as supporting documents including extracts of newspaper coverage of the trial itself.

There seems to be no doubt that Roddy has carried out the attacks of which he has been accused; his writing attempts to trace the course of events that led him to the crimes which he declared himself guilty of. What transpires is an account of an impoverished life where there is little hope for escape. His family’s fortunes take a turn for the worse after his mother dies and when a local bully takes on the role of Constable within the community his father seems to be singled out for ill-treatment.

The book seems to pose lots of question and doesn’t necessarily provide answers. I’m never keen on ambiguity – I am always convinced  that the author knows the ‘answer’ and is leaving me to figure it out, and I worry that I’ve not reached the right conclusion. From the beginning we only know who one victim of the attack is and it’s quite late in the story that we find who the others are. The narrators can be unreliable, some obviously so, others less explicit. There are a few incidents that are hinted at and never made clear and I was unsure about their relevance. And then there’s the ending.

I found the book quite enjoyable although I would say the telling of it was nothing new. There was something about the period in which it is set and the slow unfolding of the events in advance of a trial that reminded me of Burial Rites. But it lacked the beautiful writing of Hannah Kent. The use of ‘documents’ and reports to provide different perspectives isn’t new either, although statements during trials perhaps appear less often. Neither did it feel to me that it was shining a light on some of the issues it touched on – poverty of those working on the land, inequality, mental health, justice – than you might read in any similar novel set in the period.  Perhaps it is the combination of these that has made this book stand out to the judges. It certainly lacked some of the tension and thrills I might have expected.

I did go in search of ‘what is the Man Booker Prize awarded for?’. The official description is “a literary prize awarded each year for the best original novel, written in the English language, and published in the UK.” as well as “in the opinion of the judges, the best novel of the year written in English and published in the UK.” And there we have it ‘in the opinion the judges’ – more a subjective criteria and dependant on who is judging.

Perhaps elevating this book to the Booker shortlist has made me overly critical. Have you read this or any others on the list? What did you think?