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The Man Booker's life of crime

The Man Booker's life of crime

The Man Booker is no stranger to the criminal fraternity. That's not to say it does dodgy deals in  seedy pubs in insalubrious parts of town or that, say, Howard Jacobson, Julian Barnes and Margaret Atwood hold up banks, but rather that its commitment to good writing encompasses good crime writing too. Several Man Booker figures were among a cluster of crime novelists recently asked to pick their favourite book in the genre. Val McDermid, herself the doyenne of the trade and a Man Booker judge this year, plumped for On Beulah Height by Reginald Hill; John Banville, Man Booker winner in 2005 under his own name and a crime writer as Benjamin Black, went for Raymond Chandler's The Long Goodbye; Graeme Macrae Burnet, Man Booker shortlisted in 2016, picked Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment; meanwhile Susie Steiner went for McDermid's own A Place of Execution. Since the Man Booker judges can call in books they feel worthy of consideration but which haven't been submitted by their publishers, Steiner 's choice may indicate that she's going for a wildcard Man Booker longlisting. Nothing criminal there.

Peter Carey, one of only three writers to have won the Man Booker twice (Hilary Mantel and J.M. Coetzee being the others) has been making some recommendations of his own, sharing “five memorable books from his life”. And they are not what you might expect. Yes, a couple of heavyweights are there – W.G. Sebald's The Rings of Saturn and William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying – but who would have thought that Nicholas Monserrat's mega-selling The Cruel Sea would have been one (“I read with acute sensitivity toward any sign of sexual intercourse,” says Carey, “which, this being the 1950s, would have occurred just off the dog-eared page”). Or The Magic Pudding by Norman Lindsay (“a great discursive, funny adventure of the 1930s complete with villainous wombats, sea shanties and the consolation that, in the midst of the Great Depression, no one need go hungry”). Or Captain W.E. Johns's Biggles of the Fighter Squadron which, as a boy, he read with his father who “always checked out the endings first, just to reassure himself that Biggles hadn’t died”. Carey's selection is a wonderful illustration of why books are memorable for any number of reasons, and snobbishness is not one of them.

The sainted and aforementioned Hilary Mantel gave an interesting answer to a question put to her by the Times Higher Education magazine recently. When asked: what would be lost if the Tudors ceased to play such a role in the national imagination? She turned the question on its head: “I think there is no way they’ll be displaced, unless we have another king with six wives and a hatchet. . . It’s one of those eras in which women really matter – not only Henry’s six wives, but the women around them and the three Tudor queens (if you include Jane Grey). Everything depends on their bodies as well as their minds.”

It sometimes feels as though Man Booker novels are keeping the film and theatre worlds going single-handedly. Innumerable Man Booker books, from Schindler's Ark to Wolf Hall, have saved screen- and stage-writers the trouble of having to come up with innovative ideas of their own. Some have yet to be picked up, however, and the Evening Standard recently suggested a selection of books ripe for dramatisation. Among them were books by two Man Booker writers: Ali Smith's There But For The and George Saunders's Escape from Spiderhead. The well of Man Booker fiction is a deep one so it is only a matter of time before they are drawn up. Ian McGuire's brutal whalingship saga The North Water, longlisted in 2016, is the latest television adaptation, due to be screen later this year on BBC2.