Books: Criminal neglect

A Week in Books: The Supercilious Silk, and the Bashful Benefactor: two Christmas mysteries
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IMAGINE A gathering of gifted professionals - the finest a business can boast, assembled to honour their peers at an annual awards ceremony. Then imagine that the leading guest at such a glitzy bash used his spotlit role to tell the company that he really couldn't be bothered with their work. That he never spent much time enjoying their skills - except when the BBC paid him to study an example of it. Now, if you were a dedicated toiler in this trade, wouldn't you feel more than a mite aggrieved?

Yet that was just how Michael Mansfield QC addressed last week's Dagger Awards of the Crime Writers Association at the Law Society. The TV-friendly campaigning silk told the massed virtuosi of thrillers and whodunnits that he seldom had time to read them - save when he talked about John Grisham on the radio. Puzzlingly, he then segued into a sort of anti-Pinochet ramble that left the great brief sounding less like a star advocate than the only pinko cabbie in the known universe.

Mansfield is missing a treat - especially if, as I hear, he may have some crime-writing ambitions of his own. No sector of British fiction looks as vital and varied at present as crime and mystery, in all its forms. At least two finalists for the 1998 CWA/ Macallan Gold Dagger for fiction - Michael Dibdin's A Long Finish and Reginald Hill's On Beulah Height - would have graced any Booker shortlist on purely literary grounds. In the event, the top prize went to a formidable transatlantic contender: James Lee Burke's Sunset Limited (Orion), the latest in the Louisiana- based series featuring Inspector Dave Robicheaux, lauded by Pete Davies in the Independent as "the most impressive body of crime fiction in America today".

No matter. However good crime writing gets, some supercilious celeb can always look down his nose at the best in the business. This is not just snobbish, but senseless as well. Any half-awake watcher of the publishing scene knows that the big story of the new millennium will involve the collapse of those already frayed distinctions between so-called "genre" and "literary" fictions. The best crime writers stand well in the vanguard of that convergence. Yet still they have to grin and bear the casual contempt of the smart Establishment. It's enough to drive a noir buff to dream up a retributive plot-line. "Death in the Red Chambers", anyone?

COURTING DISSENT, the CWA gave its award for non-fiction to Cries Unheard (Macmillan): Gitta Sereny's fierce, forensic quest for the links between what was done to little Mary Bell and what she did to the two boys she killed. Sereny's book may come into contention again when the first-ever judging panel for the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction convenes early next spring. It is funded, Orange-Prize-style, by a nameless bashful bookworm ("a retired British businessman and philanthropist") to the tune of pounds 30,000 for the winner and pounds 2,500 each of the shortlisted authors. With a longlist due in March, a shortlist in May and a winner proclaimed by its first chair - James Naughtie - at the start of June, the Samuel Johnson will fill the yawning gap left last year when fickle NCR abandoned their non- fiction award. Its creation gives a Christmas boost to aspiring travellers, biographers, memoirists, critics and scientists - and to their publishers. Knowing Naughtie's own proclivities, musical biographers might feel most chuffed. As for the Johnson monicker - well, it would be very churlish to dig up Sam's own definition of a patron: "Commonly a wretch who supports with insolence, and is paid with flattery". Perhaps that explains the anonymity.