Friday, January 30, 2015

Ghosts of a younger self: Peter May speaks

This week I have a large feature on Scottish crime writer Peter May published in the New Zealand Listener. It really is a privilege to get to interview amazing writers and share more about them and their stories with readers in some high quality publications. I've been very fortunate over the past few years. New Zealand readers can grab a print copy of the Listener this week, or online subscribers to the Listener can read the full article from anywhere in the world (click here). I really enjoyed chatting to May late last year: about his latest novel RUNAWAY (inspired by his own teenage sojourn to London to follow his musical dreams, almost fifty years ago), the Lewis trilogy, his earlier screenwriting career, thoughts on crime fiction as quality literature, and much more - he is a fascinating and thoughtful man, as well as a heck of a good crime writer.

Ghosts of a younger self
It took 50 years for Peter May to turn a childhood dream into the plot of a thriller. He talks to Craig Sisterson.

It’s fitting that it was in a place of escapes and returns, among the soaring arches and rusting rail lines of Glasgow Central Station, that an idea Peter May had nurtured for 30 years finally coalesced. In the late 1960s, May had run away to London with his teenage friends. The dream: musical stardom. The reality: running out of money, returning north on a train with his best mate Stevie and being met by their fathers for “quite an extraordinary encounter” on Platform 1. May had marinated the idea of a novel ...

READ FULL ARTICLE HERE (Listener subscribers)


Have you read any Peter May novels, and if so, what do you think of his storytelling? How much does the past play a part in our present? What does it take to elevate crime writing to top literature?

Asian Drug Running and British Daggers


Asian drug-running and British daggers
Wellington-based NZSA member Bob Marriott talks to Craig Sisterson about being considered one of the best unpublished crime writers in the English-speaking world

A couple of messages from the British Crime Writers’ Association (CWA) could end up changing NZSA member Bob Marriott’s fiction-writing life. Last year, as part of a regular CWA email newsletter, Marriott, a Wellington-based freelance travel writer and former Naenae College teacher, discovered the CWA Debut Dagger, an unpublished crime writers’ competition open worldwide. Then in May Marriott found out he was one of 12 shortlisted authors selected from “hundreds and hundreds” of entries for the 2010 Debut Dagger.

Since 1998 the Debut Dagger has been part of the prestigious CWA Dagger Awards, which for half a century have recognised the best of the best in the crime and thriller writing world. A glance at previous Dagger winners reads like a veritable ‘Who’s Who’ of crime writing; PD James, Ruth Rendell, Ian Rankin, Colin Dexter, James Lee Burke, Reginald Hill, Sarah Paretsky, Henning Mankell, and many more. “When I read the names of some of the people involved, I thought, well, this has got to be pretty big,” says Marriot, with a chuckle.

As an unpublished novelist, it was the Debut Dagger that caught Marriott’s eye, especially since it was open worldwide and many previous entrants have gone from unknown to published author thanks to the competition. Marriott, who was born in England but moved to New Zealand in 1966, had been working on a thriller for several years; In the Lion’s Throat, an action-packed tale set amongst the spectacular scenery of Southeast Asia that he knew so well from his travel adventures. “I’ve travelled extensively and the characters I have met and the places I visited gave me the idea for a story,” says Marriott. “I worked on it spasmodically in between articles and travel for two or three years, then last year decided to finish the book then do something positive with it.”

One eye-opening trip into the Laos mountains provided plenty of fictional fodder. “It’s a hotbed of drug smuggling up that way, and they don’t really hide it in many cases,” he says. “They were growing opium [poppies] quite openly, and the guide said ‘we grow a little just for our own use’, with a sort of a little grin at the corner of his mouth, and I thought, well there’s acres and acres there. What I know about opium you could write on the back of a postage stamp, but I thought obviously there is more going on than meets the eye. It’s a sort of fairly lawless, remote area. I found it sort of mystic.”

Entrants for the Debut Dagger, which is open to anyone writing in the English language who has not yet had a novel published commercially, must submit the opening chapter(s) of their crime novel (up to 3,000 words) along with a short synopsis of the overall story. Although he thought his story might struggle to pique the judges’ interest, since it was “more of an action thriller” than a classic whodunnit, Marriott says he looked at the Debut Dagger “and thought, you know, what the heck?” After all, you’ve got to be in to win, and he’d been looking to “do something positive” with his completed manuscript.

Although he’d finished his full-length novel, Marriott still faced one final hurdle before he could enter; writing a good synopsis of In the Lion’s Throat. “I found of course that writing a decent synopsis is harder than writing the book,” he says with a laugh. Particularly when you’ve only got a certain amount of words - they wanted 500 words or something like that - to write what the whole book is about.” A good synopsis is fairly important, as the entire competition is judged \ on each entrant’s opening 3,000 words and synopsis. Unlike the recent NZSA/Pindar Publishing Prize (which incidentally was won by another Wellington-based budding crime writer, Donna Malane), where unpublished authors were shortlisted based on their extract and synopsis, but then the judges considered the full manuscripts of the finalists, for the CWA Debut Dagger the winner is chosen based solely on their extract and synopsis. “The amazing thing is, you don’t even have to have written the [entire] book,” says Marriott. “I mean, obviously if you want to get anywhere with it [later] you have to write the book.”

Marriott crafted his synopsis - distilling down his rollercoaster story of unorthodox Interpol Operator Brett Sadler waging war on drug smugglers in Southeast Asia and New Zealand into a few hundred words - paid his £25 entry fee, emailed his entry to the CWA, and promptly “forgot all about it”. So he was “surprised and delighted” to find out a few months later that In the Lion’s Throat had been selected by the judges (which include fiction editors from publishers Faber & Faber, Orion, and John Murray, along with a literary agent and the CWA Chairman) as one of the 12 finalists.

Speaking to Marriott in the week before the winner of the CWA Debut Dagger was announced at the Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival in late July, he says he has no expectations for In the Lion’s Throat to win, and is just thrilled to be on the shortlist. Rather than being an Oscar-esque ‘just happy to be nominated’ spiel, when it comes to the Debut Dagger it’s actually the case that being shortlisted can be as good as winning. Since its inception just over a decade ago, 23 winners and shortlisted authors have been published, and several have gone on to be recognised by major writing awards around the world. Inaugural winner Joolz Denby was short-listed for the 2005 Orange Prize for Fiction, 2001 winner Ed Wright was awarded the 2005 Shamus award for Best PI. novel by the Private Eye Writers of America, and Allan Guthrie won the 2007 Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year for Two Way Split, developed from his entry shortlisted in 2001. Barbara Cleverly, shortlisted in 1999, won the CWA Ellis Peters Historical Dagger award in 2004.

Another author who was shortlisted but didn’t win has perhaps been the most successful Debut Dagger alumni of all. Canadian Louise Penny’s manuscript for her mystery Still Life endured two years of constant rejection by publishers and literary agents around the world, until she decided to enter the 2004 competition. Making it through to the shortlist from around 800 entries that year, Penny was noticed by agents then publishers, and her career took off. Once published, Still Life went on to win the CWA New Blood Dagger (best first novel), the Crime Writers of Canada’s Arthur Ellis Award, and the Dilys, Barry, and Anthony awards in the United States.

The CWA established the Debut Dagger as a way for talented new crime fiction writers to be noticed, rather than lost amongst the ‘slush pile’ of submissions that accumulate on publishers’ and agents’ desks. The success of Penny’s debut and ongoing career (her Inspector Gamache series has featured on the New York Times bestseller list, been nominated for many literary awards, and earlier this year won the prestigious Agatha Award for an unprecedented third year in a row) is just one of many examples demonstrating the Dagger judges have a knack for spotting crime writing talent that might otherwise be overlooked by busy agents and publishers.

Marriott hopes that being shortlisted may likewise help In the Lion’s Throat get more of a chance. “The book is actually finished, it’s there for anybody who wants it, and I’m hoping of course, against hope, that some publisher or agent takes an interest.”

In the meantime, he’s continuing to travel, and continuing to write. He’s now working on a second travel-inspired thriller, set in Central America.

Craig Sisterson writes news, reviews and features for magazines and newspapers in New Zealand, Australia, the Pacific Islands, North America, and Europe. He is also the creator of Crime Watch, a website focused on New Zealand crime and thriller writing: 


This article was originally published in the August/September 2010 issue of NZ Author magazine. It is available from the archives of the National Library of New Zealand. 

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Review: THE SILENT HOUR by Michael Koryta

THE SILENT HOUR by Michael Koryta (Allen & Unwin, 2009)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Young wunderkind crime writer Michael Koryta won the PI Writers of America Best First Novel and was nominated for an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America for his debut Tonight I Said Goodbye. That acclaimed novel, which Koryta wrote when he was only 20, introduced Cleveland-based private investigator Lincoln Perry to the genre. Now, four books later, Koryta (who is also an award-winning journalist and part-time private eye himself) has moved from rising star to establishing a solid position amongst the upper echelon of crime writers.

In The Silent Hour Perry is asked by convicted murderer and former parolee Parker Harrison to investigate the 12-year old disappearance of Alexandria Sanabria, the founder of a unique residential program for released killers. A woman whose brother is a suspected underworld kingpin, and whose husband’s skeletal remains, Perry quickly discovers to his dismay, have recently been unearthed. Perry finds himself scratching at the scab of a sordid family mystery, intertwined with decades-old threats and past and present police and FBI investigations, and unwittingly following a trail that leads to more deaths.

Koryta weaves a nicely-paced and engrossing tale with some unexpected twists, but like the very best in the genre, his storytelling is much more than just page-turning plotlines. Perry is an intriguing and complex protagonist, whose struggles with not only this investigation, but also his commitment to even being in a job that has brought danger to his few loved ones, give him a humanity that will resonate with many readers. The supporting cast is full of interesting and reasonably well-rounded characters; authentic and distinct personalities, perspectives and voices.

Koryta makes you want to turn the page, for the characters and the story, and when you get to the end, you want to go out and immediately find another of his books.

This review was originally published in print and online in the Nelson Mail newspaper in mid 2009. Due to archiving, the review is now no longer on the Nelson Mail website, so has been republished online here. 

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

I Can't Wait to Read: SNOW BLIND by Ragnar Jonasson

Last year I launched a new irregular series here on Crime Watch, "I Can't Wait to Read", which features myself or other guest bloggers highlighting a crime novel (upcoming or already out) that they are really looking forward to reading. The series went into a hiatus, but returns in 2015, and I'm looking forward to sharing some great new and upcoming books over the coming months - exciting titles from new, on-the-rise, and well-established crime writers.

Today I'm happy to feature the first English-language translation from a very cool Icelandic author I met at Bloody Scotland in September last year, and then again at Iceland Noir in November. I was very excited to hear his Scandinavian thrillers have been picked up for publication in English, by Orenda Books, a new boutique publishing house.

The book blurb:
Siglufjörður: an idyllically quiet fishing village in Northern Iceland, where no one locks their doors – accessible only via a small mountain tunnel. Ari Thór Arason: a rookie policeman on his first posting, far from his girlfriend in Reykjavik – with a past that he’s unable to leave behind. When a young woman is found lying half-naked in the snow, bleeding and unconscious, and a highly esteemed, elderly writer falls to his death in the local theatre, Ari is dragged straight into the heart of a community where he can trust no one, and secrets and lies are a way of life. An avalanche and unremitting snowstorms close the mountain pass, and the 24-hour darkness threatens to push Ari over the edge, as curtains begin to twitch, and his investigation becomes increasingly complex, chilling and personal. Past plays tag with the present and the claustrophobic tension mounts, while Ari is thrust ever deeper into his own darkness – blinded by snow, and with a killer on the loose. Taut and terrifying, Snowblind is a startling debut from an extraordinary new talent, taking Nordic Noir to soaring new heights.

The author bio:
Ragnar Jónasson was born in Reykjavik in 1976, and currently works as a lawyer, while teaching copyright law at the Reykjavik University Law School. In the past, he’s worked in TV and radio, including as a news reporter for the Icelandic National Broadcasting Service. Before embarking on a writing career, Ragnar translated 14 Agatha Christie novels into Icelandic, and has had several short stories published in German, English and Icelandic literary magazines. Ragnar set up the first overseas chapter of the CWA (Crime Writers’ Association) in Reykjavik, and is co-founder of the international crime-writing festival Iceland Noir, selected by the Guardian as one of the ‘best crime-writing festivals around the world’. Ragnar Jónasson has written five novels in the Dark Iceland series, and he is currently working on his sixth. He lives in Reykjavik with his wife and two daughters. Nightblind will be published by Orenda Books in 2016.

Why I can't wait:
Along with having a similar background to me (lawyer, journalist, festival organiser, crime history buff, etc), Ragnar just seems a very intelligent and intriguing fellow. I've heard terrific things about his books from people who've read them in the original Icelandic, and the idea of a series set in small-town Iceland, which is reminiscent in many ways of New Zealand (ruggedly majestic scenery, isolated geographically, hardy people, reliance on the sea and land, sparsely populated, etc) is quite fascinating to me. I've also experienced the northern winter, where the sun doesn't even rise above the Arctic Circle, so am very curious as to how Ragnar incorporates that atmosphere into the setting and psychology of his debut thriller.

When it's available: 
15 June 2015, in paperback and ebook


You can read more about Ragnar Jonasson and SNOWBLIND here: 


What do you think about crime thrillers from Scandinavia, and Iceland in particular? Does SNOW BLIND sound intriguing to you, as it does to me? What Nordic Noir titles are you looking forward to this year?

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Talking Kiwi crime fiction - Paul Cleave, Vanda Symon, and Paul Thomas

Back in early 2012 I had the privilege of chairing a great session on New Zealand crime writing at the New Zealand International Arts Festival. Sitting onstage with three terrific contemporary writers who have all taken the genre in our country to new heights and added new things, in different ways, was a great experience. You can read my thoughts at the time about the entire weekend here.

Paul Thomas is the 'godfather of New Zealand crime writing' thanks to his Ihaka books in the 1990s, and had at the time of our hourlong session at the Arts Festival recently returned to penning pages of murder and mayhem with DEATH ON DEMAND, which would go on to win the Ngaio Marsh Award. Vanda Symon is the Queen of contemporary Kiwi crime fiction, a three times Ngaio Marsh Award finalist, and very knowledgeable about literature in general (hosting a radio show and studying for a PhD). Paul Cleave is arguably New Zealand's most successful novelist of the past decade, in global terms, having topped bestseller lists in Europe and racking up award wins and nominations in NZ, France, and the USA.

We had an absolutely wonderful session before a great crowd. You can listen to the full session, thanks to Radio New Zealand, here:

Here's the official blurb about the New Zealand crime writing sessions, from the Arts Festival brochure:

Three of New Zealand’s best crime writers discussed bringing one of the world’s most popular forms of storytelling into a distinctly New Zealand setting.

Paul Cleave’s Christchurch-set thrillers are critically acclaimed worldwide. His debut, The Cleaner, is one of the biggest selling novels to come out of New Zealand. Paul Thomas dragged local murder mysteries into modernity with popular thrillers in the late 1990s and early 2000s. After a decade-long hiatus, Thomas returns with Death on Demand. Called ‘New Zealand’s contemporary Queen of Crime’ by the New Zealand Listener, Vanda Symon is the creator of the bestselling Sam Shephard novels, set in Otago and Southland; the latest in the series is Bound. Craig Sisterson chaired this session.