It was especially for me, because of the rather chequered experiences I've had in publishing in recent years. My genealogy series has effectively been mothballed*, though not from any real choice of my own. Yet, because I wrote it back in the summer of 2006, I am astounded at how The Blood Detective has taken on a little life of its own. I am always wary when authors claim that of their books - even more so when they refer to them as people would their children - but in this case it's true. Each time I think it has been forgotten, or come to the end of its shelf life, it pops up once more: whether that's a foreign deal, someone inquiring about TV rights, or being nominated for an award. It's heartening to know that a book which was written during a traumatic, turbulent time in my life - I wrote it before, during and after my first wife Emma died of breast cancer - continues to give people some pleasure.
So when Jean-Rene emailed me last year, I smiled, raised a glass and toasted my book for once more giving me something to cheer about. Then I forgot about it completely because I had other books to write. The Cezam is different to many other prizes. For one, the jury is more than 3,300 strong. They are all ordinary readers, who come together in various regions from different companies and organisations to discuss and read the shortlisted books. Then they rank the books in the order they prefer, giving maximum points to the one they like best. It takes a whole year for this process to play out.
Which is why I found myself in Nantes last Saturday. I had won the national prize: my book had been awarded the most points, narrowly beating Rouge Argile by Virginie Olagnier. I had been tipped off beforehand in an email from the organisers, who perhaps were unsure whether I would have been willing to make the trip on the off chance I'd won (I would have done.) Still, it was nice to be spared the gut-churning moment when someone opens an envelope, and even though you tell yourself it doesn't matter if you win or not, your palms slick with sweat and your hearts starts racing and you start to think 'I might win..' and then 'Oh shit I haven't' and you feel daft for allowing yourself to flirt with glory. Twice I have been nominated, one for the Macavity debut and the CWA First Blood, and both times I have lost: first to poor old Steig Larsson and second to Johan Theorin (I'm putting my victory this time down to the lack of any relentlessly gloomy Scandinavian books on the shortlist...) and each time I allowed myself to believe.
This time, I was able to go and relax. Or at least relax as much as an Englishman with sub-schoolboy French can when he knows he has to make an acceptance speech to 400 French readers. I took my seat next to my patient and charming interpreter, Ludivine, and watched as the books were counted down in reverse order on a big screen. I may write crime novels but in real life I hate suspense, so this was bliss. Even the groans from the audience around me as they realised the book they liked best had not won failed to put me off. Then the time came, the cover of Code 1879 flashed up on the screen and I went to accept my award. Enough of the people there had voted for me to make the reception very warm and gracious. As I grabbed the microphone in a trembling hand, the chimes of Big Ben rang out across the hall. The French sure love a gimmick. I managed to stumble my way through a few words of thanks and no one laughed. Then I took part in a panel discussion with Virginie, her editor and my French editor Nathalie Demoulin, where Ludivine managed to make me sound humorous and insightful in French. Never mind lost in translation: I think my words, in Ludivine's mouth, rather like the ones in the French edition of my book, actually gained something.
Then it was time to sign and chat with readers, which is always the nice bit. By the end of the evening I was knackered, so with a small cheque and large basket of Nantes delicacies under my arm I wove a weary way back to my hotel room and my bed, a very happy, humbled and slightly pissed author. I was on holiday in France three summers ago, just as a few problems were starting to develop in my relationship with my UK publisher, and before the rights had been sold there. If you had told me then that I would be back in the country three years later to collect a national award voted for by nearly 3500 readers, I would have thought you'd been at the pastis. But there you go. It's strange the path these books can sometimes take you on.
I had little time for celebration, because for the next week I had been asked to tour all the regions where I had won and meet more readers. But more on that next week, along with some photographs...
Dan - Friday
*mothballed no more. The third book is almost ready to go. The most exciting moment of last Saturday was hearing my French editor, who has read a rough draft, say she thought it was my best yet.