The first novel by a psychiatric nurse who turned to writing as a hobby won Britain's richest literary prize, the Whitbread Book of the Year Award.

Paul Sayer's "The Comforts of Madness" was the surprise winner, beating four other contenders for the $35,400 in prize money.The odds had strongly favored Salman Rushdie's novel "The Satanic Verses," which was attacked and burned by Islamic scholars who accused its Indian-born author of blasphemy.

Last year's award went to the crippled Irish writer Christopher Nolan for "Under the Eye of the Clock."