From 1978-1984, Mantell wrote five Wellington-set murder mysteries featuring Detective Sergeant Steve Arrow of the New Zealand Police. She also wrote a sixth crime novel, the standalone MATES, in the late 1990s.
There are still copies of some of Mantell's books, which got good reviews and were published internationally, available from various online second-hand book websites, but up until now there has been very little information available about Mantell herself, on the Internet. I would like to thank several members of the Mantell family, who got in touch with me following Laurie Mantell's passing on 11 March, for providing me with some further information about her, which I can now share with you. Particular thanks to Laurie's son Ray Mantell, daughter Linda Biggins, and son-in-law Barry Biggins.
Laurie Mantell was born Lorraine Hosking at Pahiatua (a small town in the rural southern part of New Zealand's North Island) in 1916, one of four children. Her father, the local publican, died when she was still a child, so she and her siblings were raised by their mother. She studied book-keeping and at age 19 was awarded 1st prize with honours and a medal in NZ Chamber of Commerce Exams in Book-keeping. After marrying, Laurie Mantell moved to Petone (a major suburb of the city of Lower Hutt, near Wellington) and raised a family while working as an accountant for General Motors and Federal Industries.
She began writing short stories in 1945 (some under the pen-name of Curtis Gray) - and over the next few decades had more than 70 short stories published in New Zealand, England, the United States, and Australia. In an interview with Chris Moore for The Press in 1999, Mantell revealed that her "desire to write about crime and police procedures may have come from stories an aunt had told [her] about her police sergeant husband removing bodies from the Napier earthquake debris."
At her funeral service in March, her son Ray recalled that while the family was aware she was typing away on her short stories in the kitchen many nights, "in the background she was working on her dreams to have a book published, and we did not even know". Mantell was a keen reader, mostly science fiction, but also occasionally on a wide variety of subjects, from glass blowing to archery, and murder mysteries. "This all made sense later," says her son.
In the The Press interview with Moore, Mantell says, "When I was about to retire, I thought I would have a crack at a novel... As I'd had many police stories published I decided on that.''
Mantell's first mystery novel, MURDER IN FANCY DRESS, was published by prestigious British publisher Gollancz in 1978 (Gollancz is now part of Orion). In amongst work, family, and her short stories, Mantell had been chipping away at her first novel for around 15 years, and when she thought it was finally reading to publish, friends at her local writers group suggested she start submitting it "at the top", so she sent it overseas to Gollancz. After some minor edits, it was published.
Now confident she knew how to write a publishable novel-length mystery, Mantell produced four more New Zealand-set murder mysteries starring Wellington police detective Steve Arrow, over the next few years: A MURDER OR THREE (1980); MURDER AND CHIPS (1981); MURDER TO BURN (1983); and MURDER IN VAIN (1984). The books, which were apparently quite popular, were also published in North America.
In A MURDER OR THREE, three women are murdered, each with a pair of pantyhose. Detective Sergeant Steve Arrow knows the first victim, a shy teenager he met as part of an investigation into a flasher seen in nearby bush. The body of the second victim, older, extremely attractive, is found in this same bush, and, later, a flirtatious wife dies in her own home with the tell-tale pantyhose around her throat. Residents are in near panic, and Arrow and his colleagues have little to go on as they try to investigate the killings of three women who seemed to have little in common. Could a serial killer, some kind of sex maniac, be loose in 1980s suburban Wellington?
You can read my recent review of A MURDER OR THREE here.
At her funeral service in March, Ray Mantell spoke of how his mother took everything she saw in, and often used it later in her mystery stories: "When I was young I set up my 8mm movie camera to take time motion of flowers opening & closing etc. One day I set it up on the roof to film cloud movements and thought mum did not even know what I was doing. Then in one of her books there it was a boy who set up a camera with time motion on the roof of his house to film a possum in the tree next door and in one of the frame he had the killer on film... [Another time], Linda & Barry took Mum & Dad down to Nelson and Mum saw the wood chips piles waiting to be shipped so she came up with MURDER IN CHIPS."
In the final Steve Arrow book, MURDER IN VAIN, the Wellington police detective had to investigate the death of a nudist who was killed with an arrow at a sun-seekers' club - a plotline inspired by both Mantell's avid reading of non-fiction books on archery, and an unexpected outing - others in the family once took her along to a 'local sun club' to "see what it was all about".
Mantell's Steve Arrow mysteries seem of the 'traditional' British detective story style, with interesting characters and puzzle-type whodunnit plots, just brought forward from the war and post-war years of Poirot and Alleyn into the 1970s-1980s - a Midsomers Murders or Inspector Morse type of feel and style, perhaps - just in a well-evoked New Zealand setting. Mantell brought 1970s/1980s Wellington and New Zealand to life, especially in terms of the way she evokes suburban life, and the way in which even our biggest cities were pretty relaxed in pace at the time. In fact, in a 1999 three-part series of articles discussing the geography of crime fiction, the Washington Post said that "if New Zealand is on your mind, pick up Ngaio Marsh's COLOUR SCHEME or sample the work of Laurie Mantell."
More than a decade after her final Steve Arrow mystery, Mantell published a further, standalone, crime novel, MATES. The publisher's blurb for MATES:
"‘Eric’, said Larry Davenport. ‘Come round to the flat, will you? As quickly as possible. It’s Catia. She’s been murdered. Here. In my flat.’ For Detective Sergeant Eric Walden, this phone call has serious repercussions. Not only is Larry a friend, he’s also another cop, and the main suspect. As the case unfolds Eric finds it increasingly difficult to maintain an objective view. Has he misjudged Larry? What about Catia’s mother? Why is she acting so strangely? And where do the two Brazilian musicians fit in? Set in Wellington, the Hutt Valley and Mt Cook, Mates is an absorbing and tightly-written murder mystery, that uncovers a sleuth with all the analytical skills of a Morse or a Dalglish."
Mantell continued to live in the Wellington region until her death. She lived in Wainuiomata for more than 40 years. She passed away peacefully at Enliven Home Woburn in Lower Hutt on 11 March 2010, aged 93. At the funeral service, her son Ray closed his eulogy with "she has left her mark in this world for people to enjoy any time, and that is great".
Have you read any of Laurie Mantell's books? Do you like the more traditional detective novels - with less sex and violence, and more puzzles? Whodunnits rather than whydunnits (although Mantell herself focused a lot on motive as well)? Thoughts and comments welcome.