A Week in Books: Crime writer awards have darker side

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The Independent Culture

Suitably enough, an aura of mystery surrounds the sponsorship deal just struck by the Crime Writers' Association with the Duncan Lawrie private bank. From next year, the "Duncan Lawrie Dagger", worth £20,000, will be awarded to the year's best crime novel - in the English language, that is, as the CWA chose to exclude translations after several foreign crime authors (this year, the Icelander Arnaldur Indridason) won the Gold Dagger that the new prize replaces.

The association's chair Danuta Reah says that the new conditions came about after a "radical reappraisal, to make the prize higher-profile". According to the CWA, the translation-free policy predated any talks with Duncan Lawrie. Other insiders offer a different version, and suggest the sponsors made it clear they wanted an award for books written in English, with the option of a separate international award in the future.

Whatever the exact timetable, nothing of the huge richness of translated crime writing will be eligible to compete for CWA honours in 2006. So Waterstone's - which will promote the Duncan Lawrie Dagger shortlist - is now associated with a prize that has restricted choice and access, at a time when its bid for the Ottakar's chain faces an investigation from the Competition Commission.

Danuta Reah praises the Duncan Lawrie bank, whose portfolio of arts support includes the Arvon Foundation, as "a perfect fit" for the CWA. Maybe. Its website gives advice on legal offshore tax avoidance and goes in for the partisan anti-Labour rhetoric one expects from a "personal, caring and friendly" service for the wealthy. For any crime author who likes (as many do) to seek the connections between high life and hard life, prosperity and privation, glamour and squalor, it's certainly a most interesting choice of sponsor.

The bank belongs to the Camellia group, a global giant in cash-crop plantations - from soya in Brazil to nuts in Malawi - and, above all, the world's largest non-state tea producer. Camellia (like so much British enterprise) traces its roots to young Scots on the make in the East: Walter Duncan and Alex Lawrie, who started businesses in 1860s Calcutta. These days, the Camellia-owned firm of Goodricke still runs its tea plantations - India's third largest - from the city.

But Camellia's Indian revenues will be down this year, advises chairman Malcolm Perkins, after the 15-day strike (11 to 26 July) of 350,000-plus workers across 346 tea gardens in Dooars, Darjeeling and Terai. North Bengal's tea workers - 60 per cent of them women, many from districts where starvation deaths have been reported since 2000 - had struck for the second time in six years. They demanded a rise in their daily wage from 45.90 rupees to 88 rupees (c.62p to 118p).

The owners' committee, led by Goodricke's MD Mr K S David, brokered a return to work with a deal rather different to the CWA pact with Duncan Lawrie. Pickers' daily wage will rise this year to 48.40 rupees, then by increments to 53.90 (c.72p) by 2008. However, a new productivity clause means that the workers will be docked a rupee every time they fail to pick their quota.

I'm sure that Camellia's subsidiary Goodricke ranks as an exemplary employer in its sector. And it still pays wages to 75,000 pickers; unlike Camellia's South African tea firm Sapekoe, which shut a year ago with 6,000-plus job losses, in part because of the strong rand but also due to extra costs imposed by the national minimum wage.

That closure was a "traumatic and distressing event", says the chairman. No doubt. All in all, Britain's finest writers on the meaning of justice might find something to think about when they gather in their dinner suits and posh frocks to enjoy the patronage of Camellia's subsidiary Duncan Lawrie at the Waldorf Hilton next June.