Behind the scenes of a literary award
Imagine piles of books to read, a long tradition to uphold, and the responsibility of choosing a winner whose writing career will skyrocket. I never really thought about what happens behind the scenes of a literary prize, until the day I had the opportunity to interview someone who for ten years chaired on the jury of one of France’s top crime fiction awards: the Prix du Quai des Orfèvres.
Judge Bruno Cotte has had a long career as a judge in the upper spheres of the French judicial system and at the time of this interview was at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. He was also on the jury of the Prix du Quai des Orfèvres when Frédérique Molay won it for The 7th Woman, which is a unique procedural with a powerful sense of place and characters drawn from the rich tradition of European history and culture.
Before speaking with Judge Cotte, I asked Frédérique what it felt to win such a prestigious prize. “Every year, my grandfather would buy the Prix du Quai des Orfèvres winner, as my father still does today,” she said. “For me, it was a symbol, representing an unattainable institution, so it was a dream come true when I won it.”
70 Years of Crime Fiction
A certain Jacques Catineau, who was a figure in French publishing and advertising, founded the prize in 1946. The goal was to bring police officers, magistrates, and attorneys closer together by having them award a literary prize for a new French-language crime fiction novel. Unpublished manuscripts are submitted anonymously to a jury drawn from a wide number of professions and they are judged for their literary quality, precision in details, and respect for the way the French police and the justice system works.
Judge and Jury
Can you tell us briefly who you are and the position you hold?
Bruno Cotte (BC): I have been a judge for nearly 45 years, and I’m specialized in criminal cases. I have been lucky enough to occupy a whole variety of positions such Director for Criminal Affairs and Pardons in the French Ministry of Justice, attorney general, public prosecutor and counsel for the prosecution of Cour de Cassation and then presiding judge of that court. For four years now, I have been judge of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands.
How did you find yourself on the jury of the Prix des Quai des Orfèvres?
BC: As you can imagine, considering my career, I’ve rubbed shoulders with some of the not-so-attractive aspects of human nature. Maybe that is I was asked to join this jury. The magistrate who sat on the jury at the time and who wanted to leave suggested my name, and that is how I was nominated and then ultimately chosen. It was a surprise and an honor. It was also an opportunity for me to meet a number of very interesting people. The jury is composed of police officers, of course, attorneys, and journalists, but there are also publishers, a professor of forensics, a finance inspector, and all of them love crime fiction. It was also an opportunity to discover a whole series of crime fiction writers, men and women, more or less young, more or less talented, more or less creative, but all also passionate about the genre.
Can you tell us a little something about how this prize is organized? It is rather special, considering the mix of literary and professional people on the jury, and its long history.
BC: I cannot give you any details about our methods, but I can say that each member of the jury undertakes his tasks very conscientiously and that our deliberations are very serious. They are also very lively; opinions on the books are sometimes very different. The jury sets out to find the most original manuscript by a French author, the one with the most suspense, that gives a positive image of the police and investigators, that shows good knowledge of police and criminal procedure and that is written well. It is often difficult to find, but every year the jury does find one. I was on this jury for ten years and then thought is was important for the jury to have some new blood. But those ten years were very interesting and distracting, and I made discoveries.
Do you recall your first reaction to reading Frédérique Molay’s The 7th Woman?
BC: Among those discoveries, was the then-unpublished The 7th Woman, which brought together all of the above requirements. It met another criterion, which is key but rarely found: it’s a book that is so fascinating, once you begin reading it is impossible to put it down until you are finished!
Was it your choice?
BC: You want to me reveal the secrets of our deliberations! I will just say that I really liked this book and I think that it deserved to win the prize. It is an excellent police procedural. Furthermore, it was my last year on the jury.
Are you a regular reader of crime fiction and mysteries?
BC: I am not an unconditional fan of the genre, but I have always found them to be a refuge and a fabulous distraction, even though they are often quite close to my day-to-day professional experience. What could be better than a good mystery, one that captivates you and allows you to momentarily forget your worries and concerns?
Have you read the other adventures of Nico Sirsky?
BC: To be honest, right now I’m reading the third in the Paris Homicide series [The City of Blood], so please do not interrupt my reading any longer.