The six novels are: Serenity House by Christopher Hope; The Butcher Boy by Patrick McCabe; Black Dogs by Ian McEwan; The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje; Daughters of the House by Michelle Roberts; and Sacred Hunger by Barry Unsworth. There are no previous winners in the group. Patrick McCabe is also on the four-book shortlist for the lucrative Irish Times / Aer Lingus fiction prize.
Booker judges seem to have given up saying they were spoilt for choice and could easily have chosen six different titles.
But this year's panel, led by Victoria Glendinning, is anxious to emphasise the stirring drama surrounding the judging session.
Ms Glendinning said: 'There were 10 serious contenders in the fight to the finish to get it down to six. Every book on the shortlist has one passionate supporter and one passionate opponent.'
In a reference to Nicholas Mosley, the novelist who expressed his distaste for the choice by dropping out of the Booker judging panel at this stage last year, she added: 'Hostilities will be resumed on 13 October, but no one has resigned so far.'
By yesterday morning, the 110 novels considered for the pounds 20,000 prize had been reduced to 10.
Of the novels that came close, Rose Tremain's Sacred Country was widely tipped to be one of the six finalists. Michael Dibdin's Cabal, which was only excluded after a lengthy fight, was carrying the banner for thriller-writers.
The judges have passed over several well-known authors (such as Malcolm Bradbury, P D James, Thomas Keneally and Jeanette Winterson) and revealed a taste for rather high, attention-grabbing historical drama by relatively young authors.
The six books on the shortlist are full of wildness, violence and war. Mr Unsworth's slave-ships, Mr Ondaatje's bomb-disposal crews, Mr McEwan's killer hounds, Mr Hope's vision of death camps and doctors, Mr McCabe's abattoir, Ms Roberts's post-war agonies . . . this is not a list for the faint-hearted. Anything that smacked of 'polite literature' was put in the shade.
The bookmaker William Hill declared odds as follows: 5-2 Ondaatje; 3-1 McEwan; 7-2 Hope; 4-1 McCabe; 6-1 Roberts, Unsworth.
The other judges were: John Coldstream, Valentine Cunningham, Harriet Harvey-Wood and Mark Lawson.
The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje (Bloomsbury, pounds 14.99). A scorched pilot recovers in Italy after the war, nursed by a young Canadian woman. They are joined by an Italian spy and an Indian sapper. Memories of bomb-disposal and illicit passions rise to the surface in a poetic meditation on the privations of war. The third novel by this Sri Lankan-born writer who lives in Toronto.
Daughters of the House by Michele Roberts (Virago, pounds 14.99). Two cousins grow up in a Norman house laced with shaming secrets buried since the war. In a series of short poetic vignettes the half-English, half-French author evokes an intense atmosphere of domestic detail and religious yearning. The novel includes immaculate recipes for Dijon mayonnaise.
Black Dogs by Ian McEwan (Cape, pounds 13.99). A forty-something publisher recalls the strange odyssey undertaken by his parents-in-law: a chance encounter with two menacing Nazi-trained dogs leads to some steely revelations about God and evil. McEwan has been nominated for the Booker prize once before with The Comfort of Strangers (1981).
Sacred Hunger by Barry Unsworth (Hamish Hamilton, pounds 14.99). Seafaring, slavery and spot-on liberal credentials meet in this epic dramatisation of 18th-century slave-trading. Set on the Liverpool Merchant, it is a moral saga based on the grisly truth: 'Nothing a man suffers will prevent him from inflicting suffering on others.' The author lives in Finland.
Serenity House by Christopher Hope (Macmillan, pounds 14.99). A bitter black comedy which ranges all the way from adulterous MPs to Nazi atrocities. Set amid a cast of eccentrics in a London old people's home, the sixth novel by the South African author tells of a reputable English gentleman whose dark past comes alarmingly to light.
The Butcher Boy by Patrick McCabe (Picador pounds 14.99). Set in the Sixties, the novel describes an approach to madness. The hero's mother is dragged from the bottom of a lake, and he himself becomes a slaughterhouse worker, with a whole new world of opportunities for witty blood-letting. It is the Irish-born writer's third novel. McCabe lives and teaches in London.
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