As this is posted, it’s 123 years since Alfred Nobel’s will established what we now know as the Nobel Prizes. Today, there are six Nobel categories: Physics, Chemistry, Medicine, Economic Sciences, Literature, and of course, the Peace Prize. To be a Nobel laureate is the achievement of a lifetime.
Few prizes are as valuable as a Nobel Prize, but there are, of course, lots of prizes and awards out there. And winning can be very important. So, it’s little wonder that there’s sometimes quite a lot of competition for a prize and for the recognition that goes with it. And even when there’s not a lot of obvious competition, there can be a lot of tension and suspense as people wait and wonder whether their efforts will give them the win. That tension can add a lot both to the plot of a crime novel and to the layers of character development in a novel.
The Nobel Prize for Literature figures into Karin Alvtegen’s Shadow. That novel features several generations of the Ragnerfeldt family, including Nobel laureate Axel Ragnerfeldt. An exploration of the family’s dark past and deep secrets is triggered when Gerda Persson is found dead. She had no family, so social worker Marianne Folkesson goes through her things. Marianne discovers that the dead woman’s freezer is full of copies of Regnerfeldt’s books, all dedicated to her. As the story goes on, we see how this story is tied in with the story of a man named Kristoffer, who was abandoned as a boy, and still isn’t sure who he is or why he was left alone. And we see the impact of the desire for a prize like the Nobel, and not just on the person who wants the prize.
There’s a different literary prize at stake in Teresa Solana’s A Shortcut to Paradise. That novel begins on the night that celebrated Catalán writer Marina Dolç wins the coveted Golden Apple Prize for Literature. After the awards banquet, she goes up to her hotel room, where she is later found dead. The police investigate, and soon settle on a suspect. He is fellow writer Amadeu Cabestany, who was the victim’s strongest competition for the prize, and who wanted badly to win. It doesn’t help matters that he and the victim were at odds. Nor does it help his case that, although he claims he was elsewhere at the time of the murder, he can’t prove that, and no-one at the party paid any attention to whether he was there or not. Cabestany’s literary agent hires Barcelona PIs Josep ‘Pep’ Martínez and his brother Eduard to look into the matter and try to clear Cabestany’s name if they can.
Even when a prize isn’t as prestigious as the Nobel, it can still mean high stakes (at least for the people involved). For instance, in one plot line of Douglas Lindsay’s We Are the Hanged Man, Met Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Robert Jericho is ‘volunteered’ to serve on a panel for the television show Britain’s Got Justice. It’s the last thing he wants to do, but his boss hasn’t made this optional. In the show, contestants compete as apprentice police officers. Being the winner of a reality show doesn’t, of course, have the cachet that a Nobel Prize does. But these contestants want to win. And they definitely want the fame that comes with being on TV. So, when one of them is killed, the remaining contestants are all possible suspects. Among other things this novel offers an interesting look at what it’s like to compete for a television prize.
Riley Adams (AKA Elizabeth Spann Craig) shows readers how coveted a beauty pageant prize can be in Hickory Smoked Homicide. In the novel, we meet Tristan Pembroke, wealthy and well-known beauty pageant judge and coach. She’s made her share of enemies, so when she is murdered one evening, there are several suspects. Chief among them is local artist Sara Taylor, who was involved in a dispute with the victim over one of her paintings. Sara’s mother-in-law, Lulu Taylor, knows that she is innocent. So, she decides to ask some questions to find out who the real killer is. And in the process, we learn just how important a beauty-queen prize can be, especially sometimes to the parents of the competitors.
Susan Wittig Albert’s Chili Death is, in part, the story of a hotly contested cook-off. In that plot line, Pecan Springs, Texas police officer Mike McQuaid is persuaded to serve as a judge for an up-coming chili cook-off. There’s a lot riding on this competition, so there’s tension. On the day of the event, one of the other judges, Jerry Jeff Cody, suddenly dies of what turns out to be chili that was laced with crushed peanuts, to which he was violently allergic. McQuaid’s wife (and Wittig Albert’s sleuth) China Bayles is at the cook-off and gets drawn into the investigation. And one very strong possibility is that one of the cook-off contestants was responsible for the murder. As it turns out, that murder is connected with a case of some disturbing events taking place at a local nursing home.
A prize may be as simple as a blue ribbon at a science fair contest, or as noteworthy as a Nobel Prize for Chemistry – or anything in between. Whatever the case, when a group of people all want the same thing, and that thing has value to them, there’s bound to be tension. And it’s bound to show up at some time in crime fiction.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Kander & Fred Ebbs‘s Maybe This Time.