Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Hurtling along the blacktop...

Craig every second Tuesday. 

Kia ora and gidday everyone.

Confession time: I've made a last-minute decision to switch today's topic. After my previous pieces on childhood introductions to mystery and thriller writing and the importance and impact of literary translators, I was going to bring those topics together a bit today with a celebration of some now harder-to-find translated mysteries that I really, really loved as an adolescent. I'll still write about those books and that author soon (care to hazard a guess who?), but recent events have spurred me to switch lanes.

As the northern hemisphere countries warm through Spring towards Summer, it's starting to be awards season, where various organisations celebrate great crime writing from the past year (usually it was also festival season here in the UK, but alas we're still largely online only at this stage, for a while yet).

"He felt it then. Felt it for the first time tonight ... The engine spoke to him in the language of horsepower and RPMs. It told him it yearned to run."

Last time, I noted that our fellow Murder is Everywhere correspondent Cara Black's book THREE HOURS IN PARIS had been shortlisted for the prestigious Hammett Prize, which celebrates 'literary excellence in crime writing'. Fantastic. The day after that post the shortlists for the 2021 CRIMEFEST Awards were announced, ranging across debuts, audiobooks, humorous mysteries, e-books, crime novels for kids and young adults, and biographical or critical books related to the genre. 

Lots of great reads. Authors honoured spanned giants of the genre like James Lee Burke, Michael Connelly, Lynda LaPlante, Ian Rankin, and Lee Child etc to exciting newer voices like Gabriel Bergmoser, Richard Osman, Khurrum Rahman, and Eva Bjorg Aegisdottir. 

I was stoked and humbled to receive an email that my own first book that shines a light on modern antipodean writing, SOUTHERN CROSS CRIME, was shortlisted for the HRF Keating Award alongside some tremendous reads such as Dr Heather Martin's biography of Lee Child (THE REACHER GUY), an Edgar-nominated work on the craft of crime writing from 90 members of the legendary Detection Club, edited by the redoubtable Martin Edwards (HOWDUNNIT), and a posthumous collection from brilliant and incisive Aussie storyteller Peter Temple (THE RED HAND).

The Gold Dagger was first awarded in 1960; many categories have been added since

Then late last week, the longlists for the CWA Daggers were announced (including the Gold Dagger which is a prize for the best crime novel of the year in the English language, awarded annually by the Crime Writers Association in the UK, for the past sixty years), and the winners of the LA Times Book Prizes were revealed. Two prestigious sets of book prizes from either side of the Atlantic. 

And that, dear reader, brings us to the inspiration for today's post. 

As someone who has gone from a veracious reader of crime fiction to being involved in the genre as a reviewer, features writer, event chair, festival founder, and awards judge involved with more than 20 different book prizes given out in the last decade, across several organisations and countries, I find myself keenly curious about various longlists, shortlists, and awards winners each year. 

How many of the listed books have I read already? Which of my favourite reads of the past year were honoured, and which were overlooked? What new-to-me authors sound really intriguing? 

Three outstanding crime novels, all listed for the CWA Daggers

With the Daggers, I was stoked to see two of my absolute favourite books of the past 18 months longlisted for the CWA Gold Dagger: PEACE by Garry Disher, and BLACKTOP WASTELAND by SA Cosby, along with another big fave, John Vercher's THREE-FIFTHS, listed for the John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger that honours first novels. (Another of my very top 2020 reads, OUR LITTLE CRUELTIES by Liz Nugent was absent, perhaps because it was belatedly released in the UK.) 

All are superb reads. All from superb crime writers. 

Then on Saturday morning I awoke in London to the news that SA Cosby had won the Mystery/Thriller category of the LA Times Book Prizes for BLACKTOP WASTELAND. Frankly, I was elated.

I was out wandering a few miles, looping our local park, and just couldn't stop grinning like a fool. 

It's hard to put into words how much I loved that novel when I read it last June, a few weeks before it came out. Sometimes I feel like I may have become tiresome in terms of how often I'm recommending it to people - from reviews in magazines in three countries, to including it in 'best of the year' roundups for print and podcasts, to suggesting it to readers looking for a great new crime read on social media. 

Success as a novelist didn't come easy, or fast, for Virginia author SA Cosby (pictured with the US hardcover version of his breakout book)
I even included BLACKTOP WASTELAND as an example when I discussed different ways to grab readers' attention with a great opening in a guest lecture I did for a Faber Writing Academy course in crime fiction in Australia last year (alongside passages from Jane Harper, Laura Lippman, and Vanda Symon). Because even though Cosby was a new-to-me author when I began reading the first pages of BLACKTOP WASTELAND, I quickly knew I was in the hands of a masterful storyteller.

Then on the weekend, a funny thing happened - I went to (re)share my blog review of the book in celebration of the LA Times Book Prize, and I realised I'd never written one. I'd raved about BLACKTOP WASTELAND in reviews for print magazines in three countries last year, plus on several podcasts, and talked about it lots on social media the past ten months or so, but I hadn't actually written a longer blog review or online piece about what for me personally was the best novel of 2020.

Crime or otherwise. 

So today I thought I'd share with Murder is Everywhere readers just what turned me into such a fan of this particular crime novel, and its author (spoiler alert: they're both remarkable), as thinking about that has also had me mulling on why we love storytelling in general. 

The journeys, the connections, the insights and learning alongside the entertainment ... 

Award-winning Southern storyteller SA Cosby, author BLACKTOP WASTELAND and the upcoming RAZORBLADE TEARS (Sam Santos Sauter Photography)

For those who haven't yet had the reading pleasure, BLACKTOP WASTELAND centres on hard-working auto mechanic and family man Beauregard "Bug" Montage, who's curbed his criminal ways from when he used to be the best getaway driver in the South. Struggling financially as a blue-collar black man in Virginia, a few calamities put Bug under the pump, and he's lured back - against his better judgement - for 'one last score'. A diamond heist. Of course, things go terribly wrong.

It's a good set-up that's elevated by the quality of the storytelling: prose that snarls, rich characterisation, and a wonderful sense of place. Along with the fresh perspective on racial issues, family, and masculinity in the rural South. Or as I said in one print magazine review: 

"Reading Blacktop Wasteland is a thrill not only for the page-whirring story but the sense of discovering a brilliant, fresh voice in crime writing ... 
Blending superb heist storytelling with Southern noir, Blacktop Wasteland is a knuckle-whitening tale that hurtles along while providing plenty of character depth and an immersive sense of place. It’s a thrilling concoction. Shades of Elmore Leonard with its crisp and vivid voice and everyday folk in back-country USA caught up in terrible deeds, dosed with literary flair and vital issues ala Attica Locke and Walter Mosley, while being its own original thing. Snarling, and sumptuous, Blacktop Wasteland is a treat of a read: energetic with a distinct voice, a page-whirrer with depth and heart. 
This is a powerful piece of crime writing from a writer with something to say."

It was the writing that really got me. I love rural noir when it's done well - I adore writers Southern writers like James Lee Burke, John Hart, Brian Panowich, and Wiley Cash, and Southwestern scribes like Attica Locke and Joe R Lansdale - and this is done exceptionally well. It's further seasoned with issues of race and masculinity and more. There's action aplenty, plus thoughtfulness too. 

But on top of all that, it's Cosby's writing. His prose gets under your skin. 

Here's someone who knows a lot more about quality writing and literature than I do - Professor Liam McIlvanney of the University of Otago, who teaches literature, culture, and crime writing as well as being a multi-award-winning literary crime writer himself. His recently shared his thoughts after cracking the cover on an SA Cosby novel for the first time: 

Like Professor McIlvanney, it was the quality of SA Cosby's prose even more than the thrilling events that deeply hooked me into his heist-cum-Southern noir tale

It's a great, great book. Potentially a modern classic. But that doesn't always spell success. 

Loitering as I do around the fringes of crime writing the past 13 years, wearing a variety of hats, I've seen all too many good and great storytellers get overlooked in the byzantine world of publishing and trying to get books into the hands of readers. Getting scores of great reviews but being hard to find in bookshops. Winning awards but getting little to no promotional push. Being raved about by the best in the biz - peers who know great writing - yet not getting traction for reasons nothing to do with merit. 

So to witness SA Cosby racking up the great reviews, acclaim from peers, movie deals, a growing list of accolades from Amazon #1 thriller of the year and New York Times Notable Book to the LA Times Book Prize - and even a cocktail inspired by his next novel - has been rather wonderful.

Crime writer and North Carolina bar owner Eryk Pruitt created the rum-based 'Razorblade Tears' cocktail in honour of SA Cosby's upcoming novel

'Transcends the genre' is a phrase that's misused by reviewers, so I'll steer clear of that, but for me personally, I certainly feel SA Cosby's voice and perspective enriches and elevates this genre we love. So it's great his book is connecting with so many readers, organically and via word-of-mouth. 

I was fortunate enough to chair Shawn as part of a panel with Lou Berney, Denise Mina, and Sheena Kamal at the online Bloody Scotland festival last September. Recently I got to interview him twice about his upcoming novel RAZORBLADE TEARS and his journey in crime writing (features based on those interviews will be out in magazines in Australasia and North America in July). He's a writer who's honed his talents and skills to a remarkable edge, through decades of hard work.

While many of us may have first heard of SA Cosby in the past year or so, his 'overnight success' didn't come easy, or quickly. He grew up in poverty in rural Virginia, forgoed college to help his disabled mother, and worked a variety of gigs from bouncer to construction worker while working on his writing craft. As he said to me last month, when we had a long video chat while we were both in varying degrees of lockdown, the accolades are "all gravy" to him. 

"I've been writing seriously since I was 20, and I’m 47. And so, you know, people think like BLACKTOP WASTELAND, oh it’s got a movie deal, and RAZORBLADE TEARS, which comes out in July, and that’s got a movie deal – oh man you’re just this overnight success. But man, it’s a lot of no’s to get that one yes."

Candidly, when a crime writer has a huge breakthrough book like BLACKTOP WASTELAND has deservedly become for SA Cosby, sometimes you wonder how they'll follow it up. Especially when it's a standalone rather than an ongoing series. I was curious about Cosby's next, RAZORBLADE TEARS, ever since he gave us a snippet of its storyline at online Bloody Scotland. 

Shawn Cosby with Sheena Kamal, Lou Berney, and Denise Mina for the "Keep Them Safe" panel I had the pleasure of chairing for Bloody Scotland last September 

Here's Shawn in his own words, describing his upcoming new novel to me a few weeks ago: 

"RAZORBLADE TEARS is a Southern revenge noir novel about two fathers - one black, one white, both ex-cons - who are seeking vengeance for the murders of their gay sons who were married and killed a few weeks after their nuptials. These two men decide to investigate the crime because they don’t feel like the police are doing their job. Even as they’re seeking revenge they’re also seeking redemption because neither one of them were a very good father, and neither one was very accepting of their son’s sexuality. So these two men are trying to redeem themselves and grow as individuals while at the same time bringing down bloody vengeance on the people who killed their boys."

I had the good fortune to read an advance copy recently. What can I say? BLACKTOP WASTELAND was arguably my 'best book of 2020', crime or otherwise. Remarkably, I think RAZORBLADE TEARS is even better. SA Cosby may have taken a long road to get here, but boy is he here to stay.

Or as the great Michael Connelly has just said (as shared by Shawn on Twitter yesterday): 

Michael Connelly thinks SA Cosby is the future of crime writing. I agree. 

Have you read BLACKTOP WASTELAND? Are you a fan of rural noir? What were some of your favourite crime novels of the past couple of years? I'd love for you to share in the comments. 

Until next time. Ka kite anō.

Whakataukī of the fortnight: 

Inspired by Zoe and her 'word of the week', I'll be ending my fortnightly posts by sharing a whakataukī (Māori proverb), a pithy and poetic thought to mull on as we go through life.

Inā kei te mohio koe ko wai koe, I anga mai koe i hea, kei te mohio koe. Kei te anga atu ki hea

(If you know who you are and where you are from, then you will know where you are going)

Whitianga Beach, Aotearoa/New Zealand


  1. Congrats on your book being shortlisted, Craig!
    The only problem with your blog is that I can see my TBR pile skyrocketing as I read it! Blacktop wasteland just added...

  2. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did Michael. It's a bit gritty and violent at times, but I think you and Stan would appreciate all the texture and issues woven into the tale and you're not cosy-only crime readers anyway!

    1. Indeed!I can't recall when I last read a "cosy"...
      BTW It just got short listed for the ITW thriller awards also!

  3. I am going to buy it today, Craig! Prizes don’t impress me much. I have bought too many prize-winning books and been terribly disappointed by them. (This is probably 100% true when it comes to so-called literary novels!). But your recommendation and especially Shawn’s opening sentences convinced me.

    1. I hope you enjoy it Annamaria. I really loved the writing. It's fairly gritty and violent and raw in parts, so not for everyone, but I thought it was magnificent.

  4. What an interesting premise in Razorblade Tears!

    1. Indeed Kwei. It was interesting chatting to Shawn about that recently. It's fascinating on a few levels, including 1) it's a reverse of the father-son relationships in BLACKTOP, which is about the son dealing with the lingering trauma of an absent father while trying to be a good father himself (plus all the heist/crime action and events) - this time it's from the father's perspective, trying to find redemption for their failings; and 2) Shawn was inspired by some relatives who found it tough coming out in black families, but didn't want to write from the LGBT+ characters perspective because he felt he couldn't/shouldn't, so focused on exploring those issues via the two broken working class men.

  5. We are getting out and about again in Scotland, so I am stocking up my tbr pile for the holidays. He has just informed me that the payload on the van is 800 kgs. How many books is that ?

  6. I feel as if I've been living in a cave for the last few months, cut off from anything but deadlines. You have just showed me the light, Craig. It's been a long time since I've seen such universal praise heaped on a book and author (though Lou Berney surely qualifies) by such distinguished sources. I'm overjoyed for Shaun, and elated for all of us who love the genre. Thanks for the insights, they're terrific.

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