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The Man Booker rewards crime

The Man Booker rewards crime

The announcement of the Man Booker longlist has unleashed, as it always does, a huge flurry of interest. Different newspapers and websites have focused on different aspects of the list though the one that almost all have picked up on is the possibility of J.M. Coetzee becoming the first triple-winner in the prize’s history. At the moment he is, with Peter Carey and Hilary Mantel, one of only three double winners. The other great talking point though is whether Graeme Macrae Burnet’ s His Bloody Project (published by the crime imprint Contraband) could become the first crime novel ever to win the prize. The story concerns a triple murder in a remote Scottish crofting community in 1869 and the arrest of the clearly guilty 17-year-old Roderick Macrae. It is the whys which hide the real mystery. There are no rules about a thriller being ineligible to win but in the prize's 47-year history a crime novel has yet to pull off the feat.

One of the wonders of the Man Booker is its fearlessness. The fact that Wyl Menmuir’s The Many (published by the small independent Salt) had received no reviews whatsoever in the mainstream press was of no concern to the judges. You can bet your life some reviews will be appearing now though. The book first came into being as part of Menmuir's Master’s degree at Manchester Metropolitan University. He later moved from Manchester to Cornwall and the novel is set in an isolated Cornish fishing village. When his publishers first rang him to tell him that he was on the longlist Menmuir ignored the call because he was having coffee with his 90-year-old grandmother. ‘I’m in shock,’ he says, ‘it is something I could not have expected at all. I’ve got the ambition maybe, but the expectation zero.’ He hasn't said though how his gran took the news.

It is not just authors who wait nervously for the announcement of the Man Booker longlist, publishers are chomping at their fingernails too. And with good reason: a Man Booker listing can make a writer's career but it can also do wonders for a publishing house – not just in terms of sales but in terms of status and validation too. Take Oneworld, for example, a small independent publisher run by a husband and wife team, which came to public attention when it ‘won’ last year’s Man Booker with Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings. Now it is in the running again as publisher of Paul Beatty’s The Sellout. A second, consecutive win would be an unprecedented double.

Oneworld, with Salt and Contraband, is part of a strong showing this year for the smaller publishers. The publishing house with most reason to be chuffed though is Jonathan Cape . . . well, three reasons in fact, since it publishes A.L. Kennedy, Ottessa Moshfegh and David Szalay. Scribner has done well too, with Ian McGuire and Virginia Reeves on the list, while Harvill-Secker (J.M. Coetzee), Hamish Hamilton (Deborah Levy), Faber & Faber (David Means), Viking (Elizabeth Strout) and Granta (Madeleine Thien) have one book each. One shouldn't underestimate the anxiety with which editors await the Man Booker announcement nor the kudos carried by having ‘Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize’ on a dust-jacket sticker.

When revealing the list the chair of judges Amanda Foreman addressed the question of British v American writers since 11 out of the 13 longlisted authors come from those places. Her reading suggests, she said, that their literary cultures are very different. ‘What we have to avoid is homogeneity; that would be terrible,’ she said. ‘These two cultures are alive but they are not the same. They have a different literary and historical heritage which informs them and it is really important that we don’t make literary soup out of them.’

For those who keep an eye on bookies' odds one of the current front-runners is perhaps unexpected: Ian McGuire's raw and bloody whaling story The North Water currently stands at 3/1 alongside Coetzee and A. L. Kennedy's Serious Sweet