Thursday, 2 July 2015

RICHARD LANGE WINS THE CWA SHORT STORY DAGGER: A JUDGE'S TALE

The Crime Writers Association awards dinner June 30th was great fun, and I was privileged to attend as one of the judges for the Short Story Dagger award. It was my first experience of judging, and it was a long slog, with shall we say, an avalanche of stories from all different published formats--including one, Neil Gaiman's 'The Case Of Death And Honey' which we had been sent and all liked but then discovered had actually been entered for the Dagger the previous year!

Eventually Laura Wilson, our chair Ayo Onatade, and I each submitted long-lists of about 12 stories. I collated them, and it quickly became obvious that our short list had created itself. Two stories appeared on all three of our lists, three on two of the lists, and in correspondence we found the Dashiell Hammett story was on one long list (mine, as it happens) but had just missed the other two. It became our sixth story, and I was grateful to see it in print in what is a very fine collection for anyone keen on the progression of detective fiction from cosy to hard-boiled.

This was our short list, with the descriptions I wrote for the CWA's releases:

Michael Connelly and Dennis Lehane 'Red Eye' (from Face Off, published by Sphere) Connelly's Harry Bosch travels from LA on the red eye to Boston to arrest a suspect his cold case file has turned up, and finds Lehane's Patrick Kinsey on a stake out of the same suspect. A tale whose understatement brings out the sharpness of both authors' handling of character, highlighting the differences between the two detectives in order to reveal their ultimate sameness at the core.

Dashiell Hammett 'The Hunter' (The Hunter & Other Stories/No Exit Press): In this story a detective who might be seen as a variation on Hammett's famous Continental Op uses ruthless bullying to try to get a confession, and in Hammett terms, something like the truth. This story, never published in its time, reminds us that the essence of hard-boiled is not cracking wise, ready violence, or blazing roscoes, but the world view which seeks solutions for their own sake, even though solving the crime does not necessarily bring society or its citizens (or its detectives) any closer to satisfactory solutions for their lives.

Richard Lange 'Apocrypha' (Sweet Nothing/Mulholland Press): An ex-convict called B works as a security guard in a jewellery store and lives in an LA flop house, where a couple of would be players who mock him as 'McGruff the Crime Dog' plan to rob his store. Lange reveals small bits of B's character with off-hand remarks about his past, but it's the fatalistic view of life, and the dark clarity with which it is drawn, that make this a subtly powerful neo-noir story.

Richard Lange 'Sweet Nothing' (Sweet Nothing/Mulholland Press): Richard Lange's stories of Los Angeles lie somewhere between Charles Bukowski and George Pelecanos. In 'Sweet Nothing' Dennis is a drug addict who's lost almost everything, including his children, and is trying to make himself respectable again. He shares an apartment with Troy, who weighs 450 pounds, and works as a manager in a Subway store. One night he meets a woman whose daughter is on life-support at a nearby hospital, hit by a car while jaywalking. Lange's characters are simply trying to get by in a world which sometimes seems casually antagonistic; this story is a very brightly lit piece of LA darkness.

Stuart Neville 'Juror 8' (OxCrimes/Profile Books): If you remember 12 Angry Men you will recall Juror 8, the older man with his own business who is the first one persuaded by Juror 9. But, asks Neville, what if Juror 9 weren't such a noble Henry Fonda, but more like the Fonda of Once Upon A Time In The West, and what if the boy accused of stabbing his father to death actually was guilty?

George Pelecanos 'The Dead Their Eyes Implore Us' (OxCrimes/Profile Books): In 1930s Washington DC, Greek immigrant Vasili is just starting his climb to the American Dream of success, and the one non-Greek friend he makes in his restaurant job turns up dead. Pelecanos' story is, like much of his writing, about the values of work and family, the struggles of little people in a world where those values aren't always followed. Vasili is written with such honesty the contradictions become plain, even in his own attitudes, but at heart he is a man of honour, and this is a dark look about what it means, or meant in those days, to be a man.
The two stories that appeared on all three long lists were 'Apocrypha' and 'The Dead Their Eyes Implore Us'.  When we met for lunch to decide the winner, it wasn't an easy decision, hence the commendation as runner-up for the Pelecanos, but in the end we were probably influenced by the overall quality of Lange's collection, the quality of the second-nominated story, 'Sweet Nothing', which is sweet nothing at all like the winner, and indeed, just passingly a 'crime' story at all, and the freshness of the voice.

What was fascinating to me was the similarity between our two finalist stories. Both are tales of men of low status working in jobs they feel lucky to have, whose choice of whether to act to do what they perceive as being right runs the risk of losing their job, if not creating the kinds of problems with the law and with the unlawly, that vulnerable people always face.

There was a small debate about 'The Martini Shot', the title story of George Pelecanos' first collection. I thought it was an impressive story, but there was some discussion whether it actually ran too close to novel length (which didn't bother me).  In the US, awards for novellas (indeed sometimes 'novelettes') are common but I don't see that as necessary. In the event there was also some discussion about the sex scenes in this one, whether they were necessary to the story and whether they distracted from it. But it should be noted Pelecanos came close to having two stories on the short list too. 

But Richard Lange was a new name to me, and having discovered his work was compensation enough for judging the award, even before the dinner. It was richly deserved, and you are advised to read him.

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