Former winner Alan Hollinghurst was a surprise omission from the six-strong Man Booker Prize shortlist announced on Tuesday, after having been hotly tipped for his novel The Stranger’s Child - his first since 2004’s The Line of Beauty took the honour.
The decision left Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending as the clear favourite to take the £50,000 award. Barnes, who once the described the prize as “posh bingo”, has reached this stage on three previous occasions.
He is joined by two debut novelists, AD Miller and Stephen Kelman. Miller’s Snowdrops is a literary thriller set in post Soviet Moscow. Kelman’s Pigeon English, a tale of gang warfare in London inspired by the stabbing of 10-year-old Nigerian schoolboy Damilola Taylor in 2000, sparked a bidding war among publishers last year.
Completing the line-up are Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch, who has made the longlist once before, and two Canadian novels, The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt and Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan.
“Inevitably it was hard to whittle down the longlist to six titles,” said Dame Stella Rimington, the former MI5 director-general and thriller writer who chairs the panel of judges. “We were sorry to lose some great books. But, when push came to shove, we quickly agreed that these six very different titles were the best.”
Hollinghurst’s omission, together with the inclusion of thrillers on the shortlist, may intensify murmurings in parts of the literary world about the populist leanings of this year’s panel, which also includes the journalist Matthew d’Ancona and Chris Mullin, the former MP and memoirist.
The judges will draw praise, however, for their choice of four books from independent publishers, a rarity for an organisation that has been accused in the past of an excessive focus on well-known imprints.
The winner of the prize, awarded annually to a novelist from the Commonwealth, the Republic of Ireland or Zimbabwe, will be announced on October 18 at London’s Guildhall.