It’s so refreshing when they get it right.

The gala Charles Taylor Prize luncheon ceremony held at the Windsor Arms Hotel on Feb. 27 offered lots to groan about, for those in the mood: an insanely packed room that had the wait staff showing off their bending, ducking and stretching skills and made trips to the washroom an embarrassing chance to get close and personal with the other guests; a lot of pretentious and over-articulated blather from awards foundation trustee (and Charles Taylor’s widow) Noreen Taylor about books “brought into being” (that’s “written,” for the rest of us) by talented writers; and some truly cheeseball, if well received, not-quite-mastering of the ceremonies by CBC radio host Alan Neal.

But in the end, the wine flowed freely, the roasted chicken with pesto and corn salsa was very edible and — gasp! — the best book won.

For his page-turner of a true-life detective story/travelogue Dead Man in Paradise (Douglas & McIntyre), J.B. MacKinnon took home a handsome glass trophy and $25,000 (which he — in response to a message from last year’s winner, his drinking buddy Charles Montgomery — characterized as “beer money”).

The award is the richest in Canada for non-fiction. Past winners are Montgomery, Isabel Huggan, Wayne Johnston and Carol Shields.

“I was so certain that this was not going to happen that I did not prepare any remarks. I hope the other nominees will take that as a sign of respect,” MacKinnon said in accepting the award, before noting that this is two years in a row that the prize has gone to a Vancouver writer with a book about a missionary.

Among those other nominees, beside John Terpstra for The Boys or, Waiting for the Electrician’s Daughter and Laura M. Mac Donald for Curse of the Narrows: The Halifax Explosion 1917, James Chatto may take further consolation: earlier in the ceremony, in introducing Chatto’s very good book The Greek for Love: A Memoir of Corfu, juror Laurier LaPierre broke down into tears. Some might have thought that a sign that the book was about to win, but MacKinnon’s stunningly detail-rich piece of investigative reporting won out over Chatto’s satisfyingly sentimental memoirizing.

The investigative work — and the documenting of all those details — is especially important in the age of James Frey, MacKinnon says.

“I gave myself a rule: anything that appeared in there as a fact had to be source-able and documentable and supported by records or books or sources and it was excruciating to go through the book and make sure that I could do that, but I couldn’t see any other approach that would be acceptable. The pleasure of that is that you then carry a book to the public that you feel very, very confident about.”

No stranger to prizes, MacKinnon says the satisfaction of taking home the Charles Taylor is greater than his two National Magazine Awards. “You put so much of yourself into a book that to have — it’s somehow exponentially more personal in a sense, so to be rewarded for that deep personal involvement in a project is very exciting.”

Originally published in Eye Weekly on March 2, 2006.