Murder, art and city lives impress judges of non-fiction

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The Independent Culture

Three first-time authors have found themselves on the shortlist of Britain's richest non-fiction prize.

Three first-time authors have found themselves on the shortlist of Britain's richest non-fiction prize.

The new talent, half of the six-person shortlist for the £30,000 BBC Four Samuel Johnson Prize, includes an Indian-born writer's journey through Bombay and topics from addiction to 19th-century grave robbery.

Sue MacGregor, the chairman of the judges and a broadcaster, said she was impressed that three first-time writers had made it into the shortlist for the first time in the competition's seven-year history.

"We did not even realise they were first-time writers until we were at the final conclusion, which maybe tells you we were looking for freshness. But that does not mean the other three on the shortlist are not just as fantastic. The selection of such high-quality writing perhaps points to the way some bits of non-fiction are going," she said. "We have murder, intrigue, high art and impassioned portraits of two of the world's greatest cities."

Alexander Masters, who worked at a homeless shelter in Cambridge, traced the history of a homeless drug addict called Stuart Shorter inStuart: A Life Backwards, starting from his untimely death, spells in prison, suicide attempts and post-office robberies as an adult to the childhood sexual abuse he suffered from his brother and a care worker.

Sarah Wise, another first-time writer, wrote what the writer Peter Ackroyd called in his review of the work "an indispensible read" about a circle of grave robbers in 1831 who supplied anatomy schools with fresh "examples" for dissection.

Wise, who has worked a freelance journalist and was awarded an MA in Victorian studies in 1996, based her historical study on the controversial case that came to be known as The Italian Boy, which is also the book's title.

Suketu Mehta, a journalist who lives in New York, based his first book, Maximum City, on a trip to Bombay, where he grew up, after a 21-year absence. He weaves his own personal tale within the stories of the colourful characters he meets. Maximum City, which won the Kiriyama Pacific Rim Book Prize in March, was described by Salman Rushdie as the "the best book yet written about that great ruined metropolis".

Jonathan Coe was given a place on the shortlist for his long-awaited biography of B S Johnson, an avant garde writer during the Sixties and early Seventies whose creations included a book with holes cut through the pages and a novel in unbound chapters so the reader could define its chronology. The London-based writer, who has won prizes for his novels What a Carve Up!, House of Sleep and The Closed Circle, traces B S Johnson's life through papers he left behind when he committed suicide at the age of 40 in 1973, and on interviews with friends.

Hilary Spurling's two-volume biography of the painter Henri Matisse, Matisse the Master, has been fêted by reviewers and was the basis of an exhibition, currently showing at the Royal Academy of Arts, reassessing Matisse's work. She spent 15 years researching the biography using hitherto closed family archives to uncover the complicated character who bears little relation to his popular image.

The last nominated book, Istanbul: Memories of a City, translated from Turkish, focuses on the history of the city mixed with personal reminiscences by the author, Orhan Pamuk, whose has lived there for five decades. It was described by The Observer as an "enchanting elegy".

The judging panel includes Marcus du Sautoy, the mathematician, Andrew Holgate, deputy literary editor of The Sunday Times, Maria Misra, the historian, and John Simpson, the BBC's world affairs editor. MacGregor said the panel was looking for brilliant writing as well as a well-researched piece of non-fiction.

The winner of the prize - won last year by Anna Funder, another first-time author, for Stasiland, a study of the Stasi secret police in East Germany - will be announced at a ceremony on 14 June. There were two first-time authors in the 2003 shortlist, Olivia Judson with Dr Tatiana's Sex Advice To All Creation and Edgar Vincent, for his biography on Horatio Nelson, Nelson: Love and Fame.

The shortlist

MATISSE THE MASTER, by Hilary Spurling (Hamish Hamilton)

The second part of the Matisse biography, following The Unknown Matisse, which was published in 1998.

Spurling, 65, spent 15 years researching and writing the two-volume biography and her access to hitherto closed family archives enabled her to uncover a character who bears little relation to his popular image.

STUART: A LIFE BACKWARDS, by Alexander Masters (Fourth Estate)

The troubled story of the life of Stuart Shorter, a homeless man whom Masters met at a hostel in Cambridge where he worked. Stuart's poignant story includes alcoholism, drug addiction and sexual abuse by his brother.


Indian-born Mehta, another first-time novelist, writes about his return to Bombay with his young family after 21 years' absence, capturing the essence of a city where "the greatest luxury of all is solitude". Mehta weaves his own story within the lives of the individuals he meets.

ISTANBUL: MEMORIES OF A CITY, by Orhan Pamuk (Faber & Faber)

Pamuk mingles personal memoir with cultural history in this exploration of Istanbul, his home for 50 years. He revisits the houses, streets and neighbourhoods of his childhood, his daydreams and pastimes and his own family's secrets.


A biography based on unique access to papers left by the novelist B S Johnson, who committed suicide in 1973 and whose innovations included a book with holes cut through it and a novel published in a box so that its unbound chapters could be read in any order.


First-time novelist Wise tells the fascinating story of a police investigation in 1831 which uncovered a ring of body-snatchers who were supplying anatomy schools with "examples" for dissection.