John le Carré wins the Dagger of Daggers

Fellow crime writers choose The Spy Who Came In From The Cold

This year, to mark the Golden Jubilee, the membership of the CWA was given the unique opportunity to vote for the past winner of the Crossed Red Herring or the Gold Dagger whom they felt was the best of the best – the Dagger of Daggers. This is the first time that such an award has been made to a crime writer by his or her peers and the prize, a handsome crystal trophy, was awarded to John Le Carré for The Spy Who Came In From The Cold.

The Spy Who came in from the Cold

“In 1963 John le Carré’s third book arrived like a cold blast over the Berlin Wall. Len Deighton had already put the boot into Fleming with The Ipcress File the previous year, but The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was chillier and more implacable.

The book didn’t just revolutionise spy/thriller writing. It is a lesson in taut construction (under 200 pages), narrative drive and manipulation of the reader — your grasp of who’s on whose side switches backwards and forwards, but the final revelation is implicit in the opening chapter. The book is populated by dupes, cynics and bureaucrats, and the odd idealist. This is a morally ambiguous world yet le Carré never lets us forget that the other side is worse, just. A cold blast, yes, but a bracing one.”

Philip Gooden

John le Carré

Photo © Stephen Cornwell

John le Carré was born in 1931. After attending the universities of Berne and Oxford, he taught at Eton and spent five years in the British Foreign Service. The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, his third book, secured him a world-wide reputation.

John le Carré is the nom de plume of David John Moore Cornwell, who was born in 1931 in Poole, Dorset, and was educated at Sherborne School, at the University of Berne (where he studied German literature for a year) and at Lincoln College, Oxford, where he graduated with a first-class honours degree in modern languages.

He taught at Eton from 1956 to 1958 and was a member of the British Foreign Service from 1959 to 1964, serving first as Second Secretary in the British Embassy in Bonn and subsequently as Political Consul in Hamburg. He started writing novels in 1961, and since then has published nineteen titles.


Here, in date order, are the other books that were in contention for the Dagger of Daggers:

1974   Anthony Price: Other Paths To Glory

Other Paths To Glory

‘“How can anything that happened in 1916 — and anything that happened on Hameau Ridge — have anything to do with what’s happening now? It's crazy.”

‘“Crazy?” Audley sat back, suddenly more relaxed. “No, it's not crazy. Intriguing, certainly — maybe even remarkable. But not crazy.”

‘Paul Mitchell, a young historian of the First World War, is removed from his library and thrust into a dangerous world of spies, betrayal and sudden death. Unlike Graham, the engineer, in Ambler's Journey into Fear (1940) — another innocent swept into danger by events beyond his control — Mitchell finds he has an aptitude for cloak-and-dagger work.

‘The men who recruit him — Dr Audley and Colonel Butler — the stars of a series of splendid detective stories-come-thrillers — are Buchanesque.

‘“But he really is a soldier?” [Mitchell asks]

‘“Jack Butler?” Audley looked up from his paperback. “Oh yes, and a good one too — we're not all frauds. He won a very good Military Cross in Korea, and I believe he was a first-rate regimental officer … ”

‘But the plots are much more sophisticated — a labyrinthine chase through history to solve a problem of the security of the world’s leaders in the present day.

‘And it is this element which makes Other Paths To Glory so original. For the first time a thriller-writer uses clues from events from long ago to solve a riddle of vital importance for today's spies. For Price, the past resonates in the present and if we forget it, we do so at our peril.’ David Roberts


1981   Martin Cruz Smith: Gorky Park

Gorky Park

Gorky Park is probably the most famous novel on the shortlist — famous because it was both groundbreaking and very good. It was a crime novel that ranked with world class literature. Though it incorporated elements traditional to the crime story — gruesome death, a lone cop isolated from his colleagues, his troublesome private life and a bleak conspiracy from above — it transported these elements to a totally believable modern Russia.

‘Cruz Smith has the extraordinary ability to write as a native of wherever his book is set (his Tokyo Station and The Indians Won are only two examples) and in Gorky Park it was impossible to believe he hadn’t served in the Soviet police. He must have walked every ice-bound scrap of ground. The writing was masterly and the plot had romance, treachery and every twist a reader could hope for.

‘Then, as if the setting and plot were not enough, he tossed a wilfully fractious US investigator into an already simmering stroganoff, and his Russian classic became a world class masterpiece.’ Russell James


1982   Peter Lovesey: The False Inspector Dew

The False Inspector Dew

‘You have to love an author who called his first book, Wobble to Death. Since then, he has turned out many a twisting tale, but The False Inspector Dew is his best-loved and his masterpiece. What could be better for atmosphere and possibilities than a grand ocean liner? Both the torpedoed Lusitania and the post-war Mauritania have parts in a witty drama. Few have employed this classic ‘closed environment’ to such good effect. Hardly anyone on board is what they seem. Other authors have used the setting well, but where Lovesey surpasses is that among his sea-going predators even the supposed detective sets out to commit the perfect marine murder. Lovesey overturns the norm, where the sleuth should a trusted, reliable centre: Walter Baronov — itself a fake name — is as tricksy as they come and we know it. However, he is not as devious as his author!

‘This is fine writing. There is a plausible cast of roguish characters, whose cynical motives are completely believable and their moves choreographed with the lightest touch. The style is direct and elegant. The reader’s sympathies are bamboozled with effortless skill and Walter is undone in a brilliant dénouement. The end is superb.’ Lindsey Davis


1987   Barbara Vine: A Fatal Inversion

A Fatal Inversion

‘It’s years since I first read Barbara Vine’s A Fatal Inversion and it has been the greatest possible pleasure to re-read it now that it has been shortlisted for the Dagger of Daggers. Set partly during the worst heatwave of the mid-1970s and partly a decade later, it reads as freshly as though it had been written last week. As with all the novels Ruth Rendell has written under this pseudonym, there is an air of menace and anxiety from the first page. This time, she tricks readers into a premature sense of relief when she introduces her plot with a body, which turns out only a few lines later to be that of a dog, put out of its misery by caring owners. Just as her readers are relaxing she hits them with a human corpse and a mystery that deepens over the succeeding pages.

‘We are gradually introduced to a group of adults who once lived together in the ravishing country house near the dog’s burial ground, only to part when something dreadful happened. They agreed then never to meet again, but circumstances bring them together. Although we know they are connected with the rediscovered corpse, Vine withholds the full story until almost the last page, when it seems both surprising and well-signalled.

‘Utterly believable, both as heedless hippyish students and as troubled adults, the actors in this tormented drama should be unlikeable, but Vine’s great skill is to show the vulnerable humanity in even the nastiest of characters and none of these fall into this category. No wonder this intriguing and unusual crime novel won the Gold Dagger in 1987.’ Natasha Cooper


1990   Reginald Hill: Bones and Silence

Bones and Silence

‘Detective-Superintendent Andrew Dalziel believes that he witnessed a murder. Peter Pascoe thinks that his boss may be mistaken. Football hooliganism raises its ugly head. A police sergeant is a victim of gay-bashing. Anonymous letters arrive on the Super’s desk, warning of an imminent suicide. A husband asks his nurse-wife to steal drugs from hospital. And the irrepressible Eileen Chung stages her production of the Mystery Plays with Dalziel in the role of God.

‘From these and other apparently random elements, Reginald Hill has fashioned a seamless narrative that beguiles from start to finish. It blends wild comedy, dark tragedy, psychological insight and an erudition carried so lightly that that it defies belief. Gems pop up on almost every page — "Wield had the kind of face which must have thronged the eastern gate of Paradise after the eviction" and Dalziel has “the effulgent smile of a man who wants to sell a used Lada.”

Bones and Silence takes it title from Virginia Woolf and its theme from Ibsen. It’s a master class in crime writing. Prospero lied. Instead of burying his staff, he bequeathed it to Reg Hill. Pure magic.’ Keith Miles


1995   Val McDermid - The Mermaids Singing

The Mermaids Singing

‘This is both superbly easy and remarkably difficult to read. Easy because Val McDermid’s beautifully drawn characters and effortless prose mean you can’t put it down. Difficult because the compelling and unsettling narrative about a serial killer whose victims are horrifically tortured, told partly through the killer’s own diary, grips your attention with appalled fascination. An emotional car crash of a story, violent and powerful, but you just can’t tear your eyes away.

‘The book is all the more challenging for the fact that McDermid seems to slip into the skin of her cruel and damaged killer so shockingly well. Under her deft touch, the perpetrator is brought to gruesome life as an entirely understandable and human monster. But this is balanced by characters you can really root for — clinical psychologist Dr Tony Hill and his police liaison, DI Carol Jordan. In particular, Tony Hill is a unique protagonist, in some ways as deeply flawed as the deranged minds he studies.

‘This book, McDermid’s tenth, also marks a turning point in the career of one of the most successful British crime writers. It heralds her masterful entrance into the world of the deeply disturbing psychological chiller. A worthy winner.’ Zoë Sharp