A first novel set in 19th century Canada written by a former agoraphobic who ventured no further than the British Library to research it was last night named the winner of the £30,000 Costa Book Award.
Stef Penney, 37, beat rivals including Brian Thompson and the bestseller William Boyd to take the award, previously known as the Whitbread, with The Tenderness of Wolves.
Armando Iannucci, the chairman of the judges, said he had known nothing of Canada in the 1860s before sitting down to read the book. "Within 50 pages I was completely in love with it," he said. "It's a real testament to the power of good writing."
The book is a thriller about the murder of a hunter in a small community in the bleak Canadian wastelands and the simultaneous disappearance of a 17-year-old boy, the adopted son of Scots who fled their homeland as a result of the Highland clearances.
Penney, herself a Scot who now lives in London, has never been to Canada. She scoured historic documents, including the papers of the Hudson Bay Company, to write the book after first producing a screenplay about the clearances. She felt there was more to be done with the characters forced out of Scotland at the end of her film.
Penney said last night she could not believe she had won. Asked about whether her agoraphobia had helped or hindered her writing, she said: " Just because you go somewhere doesn't mean you have a peculiar or vivid or insightful take on that place. Any story takes place in a landscape of the imagination."
She may now visit Canada and said that it was possible for her to travel, adding that there were many places she hoped to see. When she first moved to London, after studying at Bristol University, her phobia meant it was two-and-a-half years before she was even able to travel on a bus.
Iannucci said they had considered the merits of all the category winners. "But with this book, it wasn't just an extraordinary first novel, it was an extraordinary novel," he said. "It was a very ambitious undertaking that was achieved successfully." Although some of the judges, who included Clive Anderson and Kate Adie, knew of Penney's background as an agoraphobic, Iannucci said it did not influence their decision.
The Tenderness of Wolves last month won the Costa first novel award before going into the competition for book of the year, which pits first novel against best novel, poetry, biography and children's literature. Category winners receive £5,000 with an extra £25,000 for the top book.
Boyd, 54, had been the booksellers' favourite with his wartime spy saga, Restless, 25 years after he took the first book award of the Whitbread prize. But in recent days the bookmakers had made Thompson, 71, favourite for Keeping Mum, his account of his own troubled childhood, the son of an ambitious father and a feckless mother who spent the war entertaining American GIs.
The other contenders were John Haynes, 70, who beat Seamus Heaney to win the poetry category with his long work set in Nigeria, Letter to Patience, and Linda Newbery, 54, who was the children's book victor with Set in Stone, a story about incest.
An eerie, bitingly atmospheric first work
On its first outing, as the untasted heir to the Whitbread prizes and their roll-call of august victors from Seamus Heaney to Philip Pullman, the Costa Book Awards needed to serve up a winner who offered plenty of tang and not too much froth.
By choosing Stef Penney's bitingly atmospheric and craftily constructed first novel, the final judging panel has brewed up a memorable enough result to secure the fame of the contest. The Tenderness of Wolves is a literary mystery set in the 1860s in the snowbound settlements and wildernesses of Canada.
Penney's eerie journey with a troubled narrator through the trackless wastes for a murderer, a lost boy and enigmatic native people draws expertly, and vividly, on three centuries of Canadian quest narratives.
It also brings sweet triumph for Quercus Books, founded by the publisher Anthony Cheetham another pioneer who has come roaring back from oblivion.
Boyd Tonkin, Literary Editor