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The Ian Fleming Steel Dagger

By Jake Kerridge

There are many reasons why it is appropriate that the Steel Dagger, the annual award for the best thriller published in Britain, should be named in honour of Ian Fleming. The principal reason is that Fleming’s storytelling skill and economy of style have been a huge influence on all the best thriller-writers of the last half century – even if many of them have repudiated some of his views on, say, politics and women – and any aspiring young thriller-writer who reads him will learn a lot. (Including how to look good in a jacket photograph; it was a sad day when publishers of thrillers decided that a bow tie and cigarette holder were no longer suitable attire for their authors).

Another reason is that Fleming’s 1962 article “How to Write a Thriller” ought to be mandatory reading for anybody setting out to judge a thriller prize. Fleming homes in on the essential quality of an outstanding thriller in the course of recollecting a conversation with a literary novelist who was annoyed that Fleming’s books so dramatically outsold his,:

‘I tried to cool his boiling ego by saying that his artistic purpose was far, far higher than mine. The target of his books was the head and, to some extent at least, the heart. The target of my books, I said, lay somewhere between the solar plexus and, well, the upper thigh.’

Now of course one wants to qualify that: the best thrillers these days are rather more likely to have some effect on the head and the heart, and rather less likely to appeal to somewhere below the belt. But the Ian Fleming Steel Dagger is not the Man Booker Prize (even if some novels, such as Tom Rob Smith’s Child 44, have been nominated for both) and the judges should indeed be assessing the books first and foremost with their solar plexus: looking for a visceral, physical reaction somewhere in the gut where Booker-winning novels rarely reach.

According to Kingsley Amis, a first-rate thriller should “keep you in continual and almost painful suspense, put you in fear for the hero’s survival”. I think this is the key to how the thriller gets to work in the solar plexus. More than with any other kind of literature, the reader identifies with the protagonist – in the same way as the player of a video game like Grand Theft Auto does. When the protagonist is in danger, the reader shares the attendant adrenaline rush. People read thrillers for the same reason as they might go bungee jumping – and although the adrenaline kick will be a lot smaller, at least with a thriller you don’t have to get out of bed.

Thrillers are read by all sorts of people, from the nine-to-fiver on the Tube to the international jet setter flying off to the fifth pool party of the day. They can add spice to even the most exciting life. John F Kennedy, hardly a man who needed to get his thrills vicariously, was a huge fan of the novels of Ian Fleming. The former Director-General of MI5 Dame Stella Rimington, a woman who has spent her life hanging out with real-life spies, loves thrillers so much that she has taken to writing her own.

What does James Bond himself read when, having foiled the machinations of SMERSH or Blofeld for a while, he’s allowed a few hours’ downtime? Thrillers, of course. In Ian Fleming’s 1957 novel From Russia, with Love, Bond’s choice of reading for a trip on the Orient Express is Eric Ambler’s classic of the genre The Mask of Dimitrios (although sadly he never gets to the end; the book is ruined after being strategically positioned to stop a SMERSH assassin’s bullet from entering Bond’s heart).

And yet despite the evident appeal of the thriller to all and sundry, the genre was for many years looked down on. In the first half of the Twentieth Century, the middle and upper classes stuck to the thriller’s genteel cousin the detective story, while thrillers were seen as pabulum for the lower orders. They were usually a mixture of the shrilly moralistic and the sadistic, as typified by the Bulldog Drummond stories of “Sapper” (HC McNeile) in which left-wingers would be flogged until they changed their ways.

This view changed slowly thanks to the pioneering work of a few writers who tried to bring more sophistication and nuance to the genre, notably Eric Ambler, Graham Greene, John le Carre and Len Deighton. By the time the Crime Writers’ Association launched its Gold Dagger award for best crime novel in the 1950s, thrillers had achieved a level of literary respectability and frequently carried off the award (indeed, le Carre’s 1963 thriller The Spy Who Came in from the Cold won the 2005 Dagger of Daggers for the best novel to win the prize in its first half-century).

But in the 1990s, with the advent of an exciting new generation of crime novelists such as Ian Rankin and Val McDermid, thrillers started to be overlooked when it came to the Gold Dagger. So in 2002 a new prize was instituted, sponsored by Ian Fleming Publications – the Steel Dagger, intended exclusively for thrillers. The first victor was The Sirius Crossing by John Creed, and since then winners have included Jeffery Deaver, Henry Porter and Charles Cumming. In 2007 the award was the equivalent of that annoying friend who can boast about being a fan of a writer years before they became famous, as it was given to Sharp Objects, the debut novel by Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn.

This year’s shortlist is impressively diverse. Capital Punishment by Robert Wilson is a kidnap thriller which considers that most topical of concerns, the possibility of a terrorist attack on London. By contrast, Stuart Neville’s Ratlines heads back into the past, with an Irishman who fought in the British side in the Second World War finding himself forced to act as bodyguard for a retired Nazi living in Ireland in the 1960s.

Mark Oldfield’s The Sentinel also delves into the past and boasts a truly terrifying anti-hero in Comandante Guzman, head of Franco’s secret police in 1950s Spain and a man whose evil influence manages to spell danger even for the twenty-first-century forensic scientist investigating his forgotten crimes. And there’s another anti-hero in Ghostman by Roger Hobbs, although readers will definitely be rooting for this one: a criminal fixer who has to outwit both the FBI and other crooks to get his hands on the proceeds of a casino robbery. Four very different books then, but with one thing in common: they really do get you in the solar plexus.

Fleming concluded his essay by saying that he wrote thrillers because they made him feel more alive. The books on this shortlist don’t need to be used to deflect bullets to make their readers feel the same.

The 2013 Ian Fleming Steel Dagger Shortlist

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