Mark Billingham's London copper DI Tom Thorne has seen off Reginald Hill's Yorkshire duo Dalziel and Pascoe and Peter Robinson's much-loved Inspector Banks to take the Theakstons Old Peculier crime novel of the year award at the Harrogate crime writing festival.
Billingham's Death Message is the seventh in his bestselling series of books starring DI Tom Thorne. This time Thorne is receiving photos of murder victims on his mobile phone, as a dangerous psychopath jailed years before manipulates former inmates into conducting his killings for him.
It beat titles by the cream of Britain's crime writers, including Ian Rankin, Lee Child and Val McDermid as well as Hill and Robinson to take the £3,000 prize, which also includes a handmade Theakstons cask. "Everyone was asking me if it had beer in it – it isn't full of beer, but there was plenty of beer around at the festival," said Billingham today. "Crime writers can definitely drink – there was one night which lasted until 5.30 in the morning."
Billingham won the inaugural crime novel of the year prize in 2005 with Lazy Bones, and said he was delighted and utterly surprised to win this year's award. "It was a stupidly good line-up – pretty much the A-Z of crime writing," he said. "It was incredible to win – usually when you're on a shortlist, even if you've told yourself you've no chance, right at the end you'll think well, there's only five of us, it can happen. But when, as was the case here, it's a big shortlist of 14 people, especially of that kind of quality – Ian Rankin, John Harvey, Val McDermid, Lee Child – you don't even think about it."
The prize is voted for by readers, with more than 5,000 votes cast. "It's the difference between getting a review from a critic and a review from a reader," said Billingham. "It's lovely to get a fantastic review in the Guardian or the Observer but it means a heck of a lot to get this prize voted for by readers."
Previous winners of the prize include Val McDermid and Allan Guthrie, with Stef Penney taking it last year for her Costa-winning debut The Tenderness of Wolves.
The full shortlist was:
The Accident Man by Tom Cain
Bad Luck and Trouble by Lee Child
Gone to Ground by John Harvey
Ritual by Mo Hayder
Garden of Evil (David Hewson
A Cure for all Diseases (Reginald Hill
The Colour of Blood by Declan Hughes
Dead Man's Footsteps by Peter James
Broken Skin by Stuart MacBride
Beneath the Bleeding by Val McDermid
Exit Music by Ian Rankin
Friend of the Devil by Peter Robinson
Savage Moon by Chris Simms