Crime wave

by Guy Somerset / 27 November, 2010
New Zealand crime-writing is flourishing like never before, and finally there is an award to acknowledge it.

Crime readers know the importance of a good denouement. Imagine, then, the frustration of those waiting to find out the winner of the inaugural Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel, which was due to be announced at the Christchurch Writers Festival in early September, but went the way of so many things after the city's earthquake.

It was as though someone had torn the final page out of a particularly good mystery, before we could discover whowunit: Alix Bosco for Cut & Run, Neil Cross for Burial or Vanda Symon for Containment.

Still, New Zealand had waited long enough already for its first-ever award for home-grown crime-writing, so it could probably wait a little longer, and now the wait is almost over, with the award presentation rescheduled for November 30.

The award is the brainchild of Craig Sisterson, an Auckland journalist and reviewer whose Crime Watch website is dedicated to New Zealand and international crime-writing.

Sisterson saw "a gaping hole" when it came to an award for New Zealand crime-writing, even though it has been enjoying a flourish of activity in recent years - enough of a flourish to ensure there were 12 novels in the running for the award, from which the three finalists were chosen. Admittedly, there were almost as many judges (seven) as novels, but that still represents a significant progression.

As well as Bosco, Symon and expat Briton Cross, the varied and growing roll call of local crime-writers includes Paul Cleave, Paul Thomas, Joan Druett and Paddy Richardson. This year saw 20-year-old student Ben Sanders bag a two-book deal with HarperCollins and TV scriptwriter Donna Malane win the New Zealand Society of Authors Pindar Publishing Prize for her novel Surrender. Many of the writers are selling well overseas.

New Zealand has had its crime-writers before, of course, not least the new award's namesake, but they have never come in such a wave. Nonetheless, Sisterson was surprised to discover exactly how many there had been.

"Just a couple of examples off the top of my head that I've discovered: Elizabeth Messenger published several books in the 60s; there were Mary Scott and Joyce West, who wrote some thrillers together in the 50s and 60s.

"And there was Laurie Mantell, who was quite popular in England and is even mentioned in some academic stuff in the US. In the 80s, there was Freda Bream, who was living in a retirement home and published about 12 books in a series set on Waiheke Island and published in Britain.

"And there have been other authors over those years. Not a massive amount but more than perhaps is realised."

Certainly more than realised by some of the current wave of writers. New Zealand crime-writing "was non-existent as far as I was aware", Paul Thomas says of the time when he published the first of his recently reissued Ihaka Trilogy, Old School Tie (1994).

"I'm pretty sure, unless you classify Man Alone as a crime novel, I had never read a New Zealand-based crime novel before I wrote one. I had read Ngaio Marsh, but as far as I can remember they were all set in the UK." (Not true, but a forgivable misconception, as virtually all were.)

Thomas had read a lot of crime fiction, most of it American. "It seemed to me there was no particular reason why it couldn't be located in New Zealand ... Wherever people are murdered, you can write a crime novel. I felt I had a sense of the New Zealand setting and a feel for the New Zealand idiom and I just thought, 'Why not have a go and see what ­happens?'"

Award finalist Symon's influences were from overseas, too, and, as with Thomas, setting and idiom were important. "I love the fact the novels I write are purposefully set in New Zealand and purposefully use our slang and are completely coloured by New Zealand. I know when I read Scandinavian crime-writers, one of the elements I really enjoy about reading them is that I'm getting a taste for their culture, their language, the way they operate as individuals, which can sometimes seems quite different to how New Zealanders would handle that situation. That's a really important element of reading writers from other countries."

Fellow finalist Cross brings an outsider's eye to the local terrain. His own novels are set in the UK, but he can see New Zealand's potential, with its "fantastic bikie gangs running meth factories deep in the country" and some of its distinctive murder cases. "It's a weirdly explosive kind of criminality, isn't it? It's got something to do with New Zealanders' taciturn and individualistic natures. They say nothing, they say nothing, they say nothing, and then they explode."

Four of the Ngaio Marsh Award judges are from overseas, including reviewers Mike Ripley (from the UK) and Peter Rozovsky (from the US).

"A lot of the judges have got very positive comments about all the books they considered. They thought they matched up well against international stuff," says Sisterson. "One of the judges even called some of the books their favourite books of the year and they read a lot from other countries. It did give us a nice sense of how the local stuff stacked up."

And yet locally, the local stuff is not given its due, believes Sisterson.

For some, it's not just a question of choosing an overseas crime novel over a local one, but of looking down on crime novels period. Crime is a popular genre, but has seldom had a look-in when it comes to literary awards.

"It would be wonderful to think a good crime book could win the New Zealand Post Book Award," says Noel Murphy, chief executive of the New Zealand Book Council. "I would think that would be a mark of some quite considerable maturity if it were the right sort of book. But it is also the case that in Britain whenever it is mooted some crime book might win the Man Booker Prize people tear their hair out and think it's the thin end of the wedge and it's all going to come to a disastrous end."

Across the Tasman, however, this year Peter Temple became the first crime-writer to win Australia's equivalent of the Booker, the Miles Franklin Award.

If the Miles Franklin is breaking down genre barriers, the Ngaio Marsh is doing so in reverse - with Maurice Gee's Access Road one of the novels considered and Alix Bosco a pseudonym for what is widely thought to be an established writer, prompting much speculation about their identity.

Hold on, though: why the secrecy? Surely Bosco isn't ashamed?

"When novelist Stephanie Merritt recently 'outed' herself as crime-writer SJ Parris, she was quoted as saying: 'From the beginning, I knew it would not be "me" writing these [crime fiction] books. They felt so new and different in flavour I wanted to give them a chance to make their own way in the world, free of any expectations created by the books I had written previously.' I couldn't put it better," says Bosco, via email.

"The 'shame' thing is interesting. The crime/thriller genre varies from the literary to the lobotomised, but writing it with any degree of success isn't easy, as illustrated by the number of 'literary' novelists I otherwise admire who have fallen on their faces attempting to write crime/thriller elements.

"Alix Bosco and I (if it comes to that) are not at all ashamed of the dreaded genre label. A well-wrought whodunit or thriller is a beautiful thing."

It is, and maybe, if Bosco wins, November 30 will provide a denouement to more than just the Ngaio Marsh Award.

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