Is That a Dag I see Before Me? by Colin Cotterill

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“Who’s that?”

It was murky dark in the basement of that barely happening nightclub in central London. Even in shadows you got the feeling that there were a lot of nervous people: fish so far out of water you could have seen their gills healing shut. If you could have seen anything, that is. But it wasn’t the lack of light that made me ask. It was the fact I wouldn’t have known who he was even in broad daylight. I suppose I could have Google-imaged them all before I left home, played ‘match the author to their publicity photos’ all evening. But I’d noticed in the past that unless the actual person was airbrushed, Photoshopped and posed, they bore scant similarity to their alter egos on the book jackets. So that really wouldn’t have helped.

My publicity lady told me who he was.

“Is he famous?” I asked.

It appeared he was and she chuckled ‘cause she knew I was joking.

I wasn’t.

I don’t read a lot and I prefer my authors faceless. As soon as you have a visual, it affects how you read them, you know? ‘He’s too fat/young/old/pompous to have written a book I can enjoy’. ‘She thinks she’s too good for my sort. Look at her, so smug in her pearls and Margaret Thatcher hair do.’

But my publicity lady proceeded to lead me around by the arm and reface all the authors lurking there in our disco basement. Some I recognized. I’d seen the names on Best Seller shelves at airports. Some names I’d seen on a list. It was a short list and my own name was on it, too. I’d assumed it was a mistake. My name comes immediately between Patricia Cornwell and Robert Crais and I imagined I’d been short listed for a CWA Dagger in the Library award – a mere whisper below a Nobel prize – due to some outsourcing clerical error. But my joint philosophies are, 1. Ride it till they catch you, and, 2. Any excuse for a piss up.

I got into conversations with journalists who obviously shared my mantra. I pretended to be a nightclubber who’d wandered downstairs in search of a WC. It helped that I was wearing my £49 Marks and Spencer sand-coloured blazer which glowed John Travolta white under the strobes. The crime hacks told me how confident this and that author was about, ‘This year being the one’. I asked about that fellow…What was his name? Clitteral, Colatterill? But they looked blank and admitted there were one or two unknowns on the list this year.

The CEO of my publishing house was ferrying drinks back and forth from the bar as fast as he could carry them. We were humbled by his unbridled philanthropy until we learned that it was all free. The young Turks who’d taken over the CWA were doing everything right. Night clubs. TV deals. Sponsorships. Knowing which authors were deceased before inviting them up to give a few words. But open bars lead to bad habits and by the time Mark Billingham started his stand-up key-note address, I’d completely forgotten my ‘Just in case’ thank you speech. It came back to me with the canapés the next morning but that was too late. It would have been hilarious and about eight minutes too long. Eight minutes is a long time to die. So it was just as well I didn’t use it. Plus, as soon as you give a pat, clever, word perfect speech, the audience automatically thinks that you’re a cocky bastard, or that there’s been a leak.

Despite what they’ll have you believe, all the nominees prepare a short, ‘Oh, what a shock!’ few words. They practice them in front of the bathroom mirror. Go over them for hours until they sound unrehearsed. I had a good one the previous year when I didn’t win the Duncan Laurie. It was so good I almost elbowed poor Frances Fyfield off the stage and grabbed for the mike. I mean damn it, I’d even rented a tux for the day. There’s nothing sadder than a loser in a penguin suit with an unexploded thank-you speech in his pocket.

So, this time they weren’t going to have the satisfaction of humiliating me. I’d written a long and funny loser address to read at the ‘also ran’ session down the pub after. It made fun of the winner. ‘Who needs award ceremonies?’ ‘I’d take a good mince pie over a silver dagger any day.’ ‘And, anyway. What am I doing here? I’m not a crime writer, gosh darn it. I’m a yarn spinner. A literary adventurist. Don’t insult me by pigeonholing me as another writer of detective novels. I’m not having it. Just not…’

And as the London Pride sinks me slowly in the West and my sand-coloured Marks and Spencer jacket finds itself being dragged ignominiously along the damp London pavement, the last remnant of my bravado crumbles and I burst into tears beneath a Metropolitan Police CCTV camera watched by a lonely woman PC with greasy hair. I had been so close to glory. Yet so far. Another year. Another heartbreak.

Then it was all ruined. Something went wrong…or right. The pretty lady on the stage leaned too closely into the microphone and somewhere inside her heavy breath were the words,

“And the winner of this year’s Crime Writer’s Association Dagger in the Library award is…”

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