The above illustration, "Blowing Bubbles," has been adapted for use here by generous permission from the artist, Cyril Rolando.

December 31, 2008

The First Annual Lowhead Dam Awards for Crime Fiction

A drowning machine, as you may know, is the apt vernacular for a lowhead dam. Lowhead dams create a hydraulic motion that makes it almost impossible for anything (like, say, a person) to escape its power.

I named my blog after this contraption because of the vast number of books in existence and being published. With over 100 new publications every month, it is impossible to read every new crime fiction book, no matter how worthy. And it's equally unlikely that I'll ever read all of the previously published crime fiction. I feel as though I've been swept over the lowhead publishing dam and I am drowning in books.

I've never figured out how book award committees can deem a book to be "the best" on any basis except the limited number of books they've read because no one person can read all of the books published in any given genre in one year. Not possible. The committees must divvy up the work and since the whole process is entirely subjective it's quite likely that the Edgars, Shamuses, Agathas, Macavitys and Barrys have missed out on honoring some worthy reads, eh? It's just as likely that I don't always agree with the choices for those awards. Also, award committees generally play nice; they are above telling a bestselling author that his/her last book was a waste of paper and ink. Not me.

And thus I have created the Lowhead Dam Awards for Crime Fiction, and I frankly admit that these awards are based solely on what I have read and enjoyed (or not) during the year. These are the books that got caught in my hydraulic backwash, so to speak. The list of eligible books is in the sidebar, so eligible does include books published prior to this year. Naturally this leaves lots of room for someone to argue that I didn't consider one of their favorites as the 'best' or 'worst' in some category. Too bad. Convince me to read your nominee next year and let the chips fall whereever the cookie crumbles.

And now, the awards:

The Give a Dam Award was created to honor the best work of classic crime fiction I've read this year. The cutoff year for 'classic' is an arbitrary choice made by an impartial observer: me. A book must have been published at least 30 years ago in order to be eligible. And the award goes to:
The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934) by James M. Cain. Moody, brutal, sexy, this is truly a classic tale. No doubt some who take the time to examine the sidebar list will argue the award should have gone to The Maltese Falcon but no way. No disrespect to Hammett but Cain's writing, the way he sucks the reader into the black hearts and twisted souls of his characters, tops Hammett's camera's-eye view every time. A much tougher decision for me was to give the award to Postman over Jim Thompson's fabulous allegory, The Getaway. It would take a lot longer to explain my reasoning than you'd want to spend time reading, so I won't bother. Let me just say, classics are called that for a reason. All three books are terrific.

The Water Over the Dam Award, honors the best work of crime fiction recommended to me by another blogger, website, bookseller or reader. This award is shared by author and the recommender. At first I thought this award was going to end in a tie, but then I realized that one of the books, a sequel of sorts, had not actually been recommended to me although the previous book by that author had been. So the uncontested award goes to:
The Cold Dish by Craig Johnson, recommended by Jen's Book Thoughts. And rightly so. This book features strong character development, affable humor, and a solid story to showcase it all. Thanks again, Jen, for a shove in the right direction.

The Not Worth a Tinker's Dam Award for the most overrated or overhyped work of crime fiction. This one wasn't even close:
First To Die by James Patterson. This award has the non-distinction of having neither a link nor a photo with an award stamp. And if you've read this book, you know why: Faux cliff-hanger chapter endings, cardboard setting, one-dimensional characters. This kind of writing is why 'literary' types look down their great, hairy noses at crime fiction. And yet several people recommended it to me, the book has sold something in the realm of a bazillion copies, and it generated a (thankfully defunct) television series. I ask you, is there any hope for America?
The Dam Your Eyes Award, for the book I most anticipated and least enjoyed, goes to a book I waited something like 13 years to read. All of her fans wanted Elizabeth Peters to give us a new installment in the Vicky Bliss series. Lo and behold, The Laughter of Dead Kings was bestowed on the reading public and now I say put Vicky back in the file cabinet and don't let her out again until she loses that irritatingly arch 'aren't I smart and cute' voice. This book has plenty of what Hemingway would have called movement without action. And don't get me started on the characterization. Just pack up your award, Vicky, and go home.

The Dam With Faint Praise Award for the best, most-overlooked work of crime fiction goes to a book that is closer to the cozy niche than to my preferred brand of edgy crime fic:
The Old Buzzard Had It Coming, by Donis Casey, is the first book in a series about Alafair Tucker, a turn-of-the-century (19th to 20th) Oklahoman. Alafair is a farm wife with a large brood of children, and a great interest in her community. The prose is simple and so is the structure but the book has two strengths, the first of which is the characterizations of Alafair and her family. The second great asset of this story is the pitch perfect historical setting. Daily life in 1912 rural Oklahoma is depicted with both warmth and a pragmatic reality. I'm still surprised that a noir/hardboiled fan like me could go for a book like this, but good is good.

The Dam Skippy Award honors the best short crime fiction story I've read this year. Now I realize that I didn't list in the sidebar all the short stories I've read so you'll just have to take my word for it that I read more short stories than the one anthology I listed, I just didn't read entire books of them. I read some of the stories in Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe - A Centennial Celebration, some of the stories in London Noir, even re-read Hemingway's The Killers, and a few other stories, some unpublished, that came my way. And there were so many wonderful stories that I thought for a while that this category would end in a three-way tie. But I re-read the three stories that I most enjoyed and I hereby grant Certificates of Honorable DAMention to The Man Who Knew Dick Bong by Robert Crais and A Failure to Communicate by Toni McGee Causey. And now, the Dam Skippy Award for best short story goes to:
One Serving of Bad Luck (from Killer Year, edited by Lee Child) by Sean Chercover. This story was my intro to both Chercover and his fictional PI Ray Dudgeon. The story itself falls chronologically between Chercover's first two books, Big City, Bad Blood and Trigger City. I recommend you read'em all.

Choosing a winner for the Hot Dam Award, for the overall outstanding work of crime fiction, gave me serious heartburn. I think this was a strong year for crime fic, and on top of that I read some real gems that had been published prior to 2008. Just creating a personal shortlist of the top five was dam' troublesome. You can argue that a book like Winter's Bone or Chasing Darkness or Once Were Cops should have received the award and I will agree with you, they are all wonderful books and deserve recognition. How could the award not go to Michael Koryta or Olen Steinhauer? Or to Duane Swierczynski? Hey, all I can say is, it didn't. When I look back over this year's body of reading, the book that stood, if you will forgive a horrible pun as well as a cliche, head and shoulders above all of the others was Toros & Torsos by Craig McDonald. T&T has everything a good crime fic novel ought to have and then some. Original story line, fascinating characters, a flowing narrative. It also has a complex structure, erudition, cool mind games, tension, and subtlety. When I reviewed T&T back in October, I wrote that it "exceeds and expands its genre while also succeeding in it." I stand by my words.

Congratulations to all the winners, and thanks to all of the authors for their collective talent, diligence, and tolerance of amateur critics.

UPDATE: I've moved the list of books I read in 2008 from the sidebar to a post, 'Books I read in 2008.' Catchy title, eh? Anyway, at least the sidebar has been cleaned up.


  1. Love your award sticker on each book. Very creative award titles too. Keep up the good work.

  2. I am honored indeed, Corey, to be included with such heady company. Thank you very much. A nice perk with which to end 2008. - Donis -

  3. P.S. Just for your Dear Readers' information, the fourth book of the series, "The Sky Took Him", just came out a couple of weeks ago.

  4. Donis, thanks for stopping by. I have your new book on order at the local indie mystery store and I'm looking forward to reading it.

  5. Mr. Wilde, thank you so much again, sir, for your praise of T&T. Receiving your award was the perfect cap for a fairly tumultuous but exhilarating year. I can't thank you enough for the great things you've said about the novel. Here's to a terrific 2009 to you and yours!

    (And I have to say, I still find myself thinking about Woodrell's "Winter's Bone." It's sublime.)

  6. Wow. What a wonderful post and some of the best titled book awards I've ever read. Plus, it was so much fun to read and discover new crime fiction books. Keep 'em coming.

  7. McDonald shoots to the top of the crime writing heap with this well-researched and excellently written masterpiece of Americana.