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

December 31, 2009

Second Annual Lowhead Dam Awards

Another year has come and flown and it's time once again to distribute the Lowhead Dam Awards for Crime Fiction. Here are my caveats and disavowals once again: These awards are based solely on what I have read and enjoyed (or not) during the year. Not what someone else read, not what sold well, not what won at Bouchercon. These are the books that got caught in my hydraulic backwash, so to speak. The list of eligible books is in a separate post here. Eligible does include books published prior to this year and advance copies of books not generally available until next 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 where ever the cookie crumbl

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. I didn't read as many older books as I might normally have done, as my focus this year was on new and debut novels, as well as short stories. So although the competition was slim, this year the award goes to an already acknowledged classic:
The Long Goodbye (1953) by Raymond Chandler. Okay, maybe this isn't my favorite book by Chandler: the pacing is slower than the other titles of his I've read, and the tale just isn't as twisty-turny, but - it's still got all of Marlowe's cynicism mixed with a portion of misplaced knight errantry, and the atmosphere is Chandler at his best.
The Water Over the Dam Award, honors the best work of crime fiction recommended by another blogger, website, bookseller, reader or madman on the street. This award is shared by both author and the recommender. I picked up on some really solid recommendations this year. (Yes, I really do keep track of those recommendations that I follow.) If you don't think this is a competitive category, here are some titles that didn't even make it to the edge of the winner's circle: Beat the Reaper, American Rust, Jack Wakes Up, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. But I have to give the nod to:
Gonzalo B (whose blog is Sweet Home Alameda) for his comment on Crime Fiction Dossier in July of '08 that caused me to add Dave Zeltserman's Small Crimes to my reading list for '09. As you all know, I've been drooling over Zeltserman's books ever since.

An Honorable Dam-ention goes to Michael at Lazy Thoughts From a Boomer for providing me with TWO titles that made the short list for this award: Money Shot by Christa Faust and The Ninth Configuration by William Peter Blatty. These books are well worth your time and cash. A second Honorable Dam-ention goes to author Dave Zeltserman as a recommender, for generously pointing me toward Roger Smith's Mixed Blood, a stellar debut.
The Not Worth a Tinker's Dam Award is given for the most overrated or overhyped work of crime fiction, while the Dam Your Eyes Award goes to the book I most anticipated and least enjoyed. For the first time I'm giving a single title more than one award, something I am loathe to do, but Andrew Grant's Even easily outpaces every other book this year to take both of these awards. Even proves that writing a good thriller is not a genetic gimme. I no longer trust the opinions of those authors who wrote such flattering blurbs for this one. The book has poor character development, hammy dialogue, and a barely comprehensible plot cobbled together by desultory prose. And if life doles out its usual irony, you can bet that Grant will go on to become the next Dan Brown in bestsellers.

The Dam With Faint Praise Award for the best, most-overlooked work of crime fiction goes to a book that, while it runs a trifle closer to the cozy niche than to my generally preferred brand of edgy crime fic, has a strong message about the mental health system and wraps that message in a gentle, whimsical tale of murder. The Body in the Record Room, by Joe Barone, tells the story of a mental patient who thinks he is Roy Rogers and is investigating a murder within a mental institution. Barone never treats his characters as characters, something far too many cozy and traditional mysteries do. Instead they are people of dimension, people with stories and problems and goals, and he writes them with grace and with respect for their humanity, their strength, and their frailty.

The Dam Skippy Award honors the best short crime fiction story I've read this year. And boy, did I read a lot of short stories this year, easily more than three times the number I set as my goal  last January. I gained a renewed appreciation for the form and how difficult it is to succeed in/at/with.

There were several extremely tasty short morsels I nibbled on: Marcus Sakey's The Desert Here and the Desert Far Away; Flannery O'Connor's A Good Man Is Hard To Find; Horse Laugh by Donald Westlake; and Going, Going, Gone by Peter Blauner. For most of the year there was one story that, for me, stood out from the others: Free With This Box! by Harlan Ellison. It's about a little boy who just can't wait to get the prizes in the cereal boxes. It's a straightforward story that provides not a twist at the end, but rather a punch. Great, great story. You'll find it in the Second Black Lizard Anthology of Crime Fiction.

For months I was pretty sure the Ellison story was going to be my choice for the Dam Skippy Award. I just couldn't imagine another story that would poleaxe me the way that one had. Suddenly, right in mid-December (and this is why my awards aren't determined before December 31), a copy of Craig McDonald's fabulous short story, The Last Interview, was dropped into my lap. This is the story that gave birth and death to Hector Lassiter. Saying even one word more would be to ruin the story for those unfortunate enough not to have read it. So The Last Interview just nudges past Free With This Box! to win the award. Allow me to recommend all of these stories for they are indeed all excellent and they differ vastly in style and approach. Every fan of crime fiction is certain to enjoy at least one of them.

Choosing a winner for the Hot Dam Award, awarded to the overall outstanding work of crime fiction, gave me serious heartburn again this year, just as I was running low on Prevacid. I was tempted to cop out by just listing all my favorites, the most recent of which is Don Winslow's superb The Gentlemen's Hour. To read Winslow is to become an instant addict to his storytelling, and I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Michael A. for making this book, not yet published in the USA, available to me.

The other favorites? Well, some fine reading was provided via Richard Lange's This Wicked World. I'll be watching for his next book for sure.And the same goes for Paul Tremblay. His debut novel, The Little Sleep, creates a unique interior landscape for his PI that compares favorably with any geographic depiction by any writer you care to name.

Also among this year's favorites was another debut, one I mentioned earlier as being recommended by Dave Z.  Mixed Blood, by Roger Smith, turned out to be devastating, jaw-clenching noir.

You can argue that Ken Bruen's Sanctuary or Declan Hughes's The Price of Blood should receive the award and I could support such an argument. Then there was Olen Steinhauer's heart-shredding story of cross and double-cross in The Confession, and the thrill ride of laughs and chills provided by Earl Emerson's Cape Disappointment, and the wonderful coming-of-age adventure of David Benioff's City of Thieves.

And could there be any finer noir ever, at any time, than Dave Zeltserman's Small Crimes and Pariah? Those titles deserve universal recognition. Zeltserman is an early front-runner for the yet-to-be-created Lowhead Dam Hall of Fame.

Like Zeltserman, Craig McDonald may have to go straight into Lowhead Dam Hall of Fame, as soon as that shrine is built, because I've yet to see anything from him that does not deserve the highest accolades, including the forthcoming Print the Legend.

And I feel like a complete heel for not handing the Hot Dam Award straight to Robert Crais for his soon-to-be-released Joe Pike novel, The First Rule, because it so far exceeded even this fan's hyper-anticipation.

I hate not having awards for each of those books, and I hope/expect that they will all garner their share of those in other, more prestigious places. All of these books floated above the others I read, but there was one that, after long and careful consideration, I thought floated just that tiny fraction higher. So the Hot Dam Award goes to:
Fifty Grand by Adrian McKinty. Since Mr. McKinty and I hold vastly differing opinions on The Beatles, it is greatly to my credit that I was able to overlook this deficiency in the author and see the worth of his work -- although I continue to marvel at how McKinty can fail to properly appreciate The Beatles' version of Please Mr. Postman and yet have enough poetry in his soul to write a book as remarkable as Fifty Grand. This book is as much about freedom and socio-ethnic-economic perceptions as it is about solving a murder. Wrap all of that in an edgy, sometimes staccato, darkly lyrical prose and I think you'll find that Fifty Grand is worth its title and more.
Congratulations to all the winners, and thanks to all of the authors for their collective talent, diligence, and (so very important) their tolerance of and generosity towards amateur critics.


  1. Some good stuff there, Corey. I really look forward to the McKinty. All The best for the New Year!

  2. Hi Corey, honored to be included among such fine company--and you're in for a real treat next year with a couple of second books--Roger Smith's Wake Up Dead and Paul Tremblay's No Sleep Till Wonderland. I had a chance to read both of these as arcs, and they're absolutely great--Wake Up Dead if you can believe it, is even a big step up from Mixed Blood--an astounding book, and No Sleep has got that same great vibe as Little Sleep, but more of a true PI novel--I loved it--nobody right now is writing more original or better PI novels than Tremblay.

    The Long Goodbye is a great book--but my favorite Chandler is the Little Sister. Flannery O'Connor and Harlan Ellison are two of my favorite short story writers--A Good Man is Hard to Find is a gem.

    This past year I reread all of Hammett--for crime stories, his Continental Op stories are my favorites, although Jim Thompson's Forever After is a about a perfect a short crime story as you'll find.

    My all-time favorite short story collection--Far From the City of Class by Bruce Jay Friedman (When You're Excused You're Excused is my all-time favorite short story).

  3. What can I say? Thanks! Joe Barone

  4. Where do I start? First off, thank you for the mentions and linkbacks, and the reading and reviewing you do, Corey. A good portion of those books that made my top tier this year came my way because of your recommendations, my friend. The Zeltserman (in print) and MacDonald (in audiobook) I finished this year with topped it off magnificently. And with this year's awards, you've given me more to savor in the future.

    And, I very much agree on your selection of Fifty Grand for the HOT DAM AWARD. I would also add that the narrator Blackstone Audio choose for the FG audiobook was superb, too. Paula Christensen's performance as Detective Mercado (and others in the novel) was one of the best I heard all year. In print or audio, this is a more than worthy selection.

    Thanks, again, Corey.

  5. Corey

    Thanks for the nod, man!

    Maybe we could reach some agreement on the Beatles solo work? 1. John Lennon 2. George Harrison 3. Paul McCartney 4. Ringo ?

  6. Good list. Zeltserman and McDonald are my writing heroes. I would have been torn on which of their titles to list at the top, but it would have to be one of theirs. I really liked Allan Guthrie's SLAMMER, too.

  7. Corey, I can't thank you enough for the very generous attention paid to "The Last Interview"; it's great to see it still has legs (no pun intended) after so many years. And just to be included in the company of Flannery O'Connor (one of my favorite authors) and fellow Buckeye Harlan Ellison (a favorite short story writer) is dizzying.

  8. Craig, The Last Interview was the first piece of fiction I read of yours (maybe it was your first??), but when I read it was pretty obvious you were going places. I can't remember what publication it was in, but it stood out clearly. Excellent story, man.