There’s a spree of crime writing going on in New Zealand, culminating in the inaugural Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel at the Christchurch Writers Festival next month. Philip Matthews tracks down the culprits
The short history of New Zealand crime writing goes like this. Once upon a time there was Ngaio Marsh, Christchurch-born author of more than 30 mysteries. Most of the books were set in England with a few exceptions, one of which might never be surpassed as a brilliant title for a New Zealand murder story: Died in the Wool. Marsh is routinely identified as one of the four "Queens of Crime'' from the golden age of crime writing; the others were Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham and Dorothy L Sayers.
Then nothing much happened for decades until Paul Thomas wrote his 90s trilogy, Old School Tie, Inside Dope and Guerrilla Season. Set in an all-too-plausible Auckland underworld of gangs and drug dealers, these books have just been reissued as The Ihaka Trilogy, named after the central character, Maori cop Tito Ihaka.
Those books gave you satire along with the sex and suspense. Lately, Thomas has been inactive as a thriller writer but enough authors have followed in his footsteps to suggest that we might be on the verge of a Kiwi crime boom.
Actually, boom is overselling it a little. "I would say there's a pleasant growth," says Craig Sisterson, on the phone from Auckland. By day, Sisterson writes for a legal industry magazine. By night, he maintains a prolific crime fiction website, Crime Watch, and has been the driving force behind a new award for New Zealand crime writing. The inaugural Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel will be handed out at the Christchurch Writers Festival next month, and it would be nice to pretend that the only reason Christchurch is the location for this celebration of murder is that it happens to have been Marsh's hometown.
Sisterson describes Marsh as "a truly world-class writer who is a little overlooked here in New Zealand". This is a common, and not entirely unwarranted, complaint of crime fans: that we tend to celebrate our highbrow, literary fiction and under-value crime and other popular genres.
“It's like the film critic thing where they think only art-house films are good,” Sisterson says. “Crime is actually really broad now. It's not just the Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh-style detective stories. You've got crime that's verging on horror. You've got crime that's very literary. You've got stuff that's caperesque, stuff that's psychological, stuff that's quite low level. They can be social or sociological novels that can really tell you about a time and place.”
The American journalist turned crime writer Michael Connelly went further, in an interview with Your Weekend two years ago: “If you want to say something significant about my country at this point, it would be hard to do that if there's wasn't some aspect of crime in your novel.”
“You can say quite a lot in crime fiction as a vehicle,” adds Dunedin-based crime novelist Vanda Symon. “Ian Rankin says writing crime fiction gives you an all-areas-pass into the contemporary scene.”
IN JUNE, an Australian crime novel jumped the fence to win Australian's leading literary prize, the Miles Franklin Award. Not the crime prize but the one serious books get. The book was Truth by Ballarat author Peter Temple.
For some, this was an upset as traumatic and unlikely as a murder mystery winning the Man Booker Prize or this week's New Zealand Post Book Award. Even Temple himself was “shocked” and said it would have been unthinkable to the late Patrick White that a crime scribbler could win such a prestigious award. For others, this was just belated recognition of a growing acceptance of crime writing by the literati.
“Literature used to be regarded as the source of all other -- by definition, lesser -- genres,” says London-based New Zealand writer Chad Taylor. “Now it's regarded as one genre among many.”
Auckland book blogger and publishing industry veteran Graham Beattie noticed a sea change when he saw high-end British publications like the Spectator and the Literary Review covering crime books. Locally, the books pages of serious publications also feature crime novels more than they used to.
Sisterson consulted Beattie, who reviews crime books on National Radio, when he began to think that New Zealand needed its own crime prize. Australia has the Ned Kellys. The Crime Writers' Association has the Daggers. In the US there are the Agathas and Edgars, named for Christie and Poe. So why not the Ngaios?
Beattie asked the obvious question. Do we have enough books?
“We've still got a fair way to go,” Beattie says. “There is a lot more fiction published here that isn't crime fiction than is, whereas overseas it is probably the largest single genre written and also the biggest selling genre worldwide. It's probably amongst the biggest selling here too.”
Sisterson found 14 New Zealand titles published last year that qualify. To get to that number, he had to cast his net a little wider than what is strictly called crime: Maurice Gee's Access Road was in his longlist as was another literary novel, Butterscotch by Lyn Loates, as it had the Parker-Hulme murder in it. This month he boiled his longlist down to a shortlist of three -- Cut and Run by Alix Bosco, Burial by Wellington-based British writer Neil Cross and Containment by Vanda Symon -- with a single winner to be picked by a mix of overseas and local judges.
Sisterson reckons there will be even more contenders next year. There is 20-year-old Auckland writer Ben Sanders who just published his first novel, The Fallen. Wellington TV writer Donna Malane won a publishing prize with a crime novel that will appear soon. Christchurch writer Grant Shanks publishes books in Asia under the penname Andrew Grant -- Singapore Sling Shot is a recent title. Wellington writer Bob Marriott was shortlisted for this year's Debut Dagger in the UK -- Sisterson wonders why that news went under the local media radar.
A prize and the ensuing attention should encourage others. We could even get a boom. Places like Scotland, Austria and Sweden have seen huge crime writing scenes grow out of relatively small populations, Sisterson notes. He apologises for sounding like a geek but he has all the facts at his fingertips: do you know that Sweden, with just nine million people, produced 84 crime novels in 2006? Not all of them were written by Stieg Larsson and Henning Mankell.
A peaceful country with a booming murder industry. Maybe that could be us.
THERE WAS Scottish crime writing before Ian Rankin. There was Swedish crime writing before Larsson and Mankell. But the success of one writer can focus attention on a whole country and Sisterson suspects that the one to do it for us might be Paul Cleave.
The Christchurch crime writer is famous for books so gory they made Australian author Jack Heath throw up. Call that an endorsement. The Germans can't get enough of this: 50,000 copies of Cleave's Cemetery Lake sold in one month in Germany last year; 250,000 copies of The Cleaner, the story of a Christchurch serial killer, were sold in Germany in 2007. This year, he signed a multibook deal with US giant Simon and Schuster, which started with his fourth novel, Blood Men.
The titles alone give you a sense of how vicious things get in Cleave's dark version of the garden city but Vanda Symon notes that they are also strongly plotted books. She even credits Cleave with opening the door for her. When Symon sent her first novel, Overkill, to Penguin Books, she got a contract for that book and three more. Penguin were after a series and she suspects Cleave's success has encouraged local publishers to look for others.
All of the Symon books feature Sam Shepard, a female cop. Inventing a compelling lead character is the key to a long-running series, Beattie says.
“You have a character who will end up being in 14 or 15 novels and you grow old with them. Ian Rankin did something dramatic last year. He retired his detective inspector Rebus, a much-loved character. That's unusual. Most people develop a cop and keep them going.”
Auckland writer Alix Bosco has come up with Anna Markunas, a legal researcher who appeared in last year's Cut and Run and this year's Slaughter Falls. Robyn Malcolm will play Markunas in a TV drama next year but the more intriguing character might be the mysterious Bosco herself -- not even Sisterson and Beattie know who the well-known writer is behind that pen name.
Bosco's invention of Anna Markunas and Symon's invention of Sam Shepard suggest a local game played by imported rules. Chad Taylor came at crime fiction in a more tangential way in hyper-cool books like Shirker and Electric -- he likes that they were dubbed ``noir'' -- and from London he has heard about the new breed of New Zealand crime writers.
“I'm aware there is a new crop of crime writers -- `crime' with an embossed red C -- and I wish them well but I hope they don't stick by the rules,” Taylor says. “That would be boring. New Zealand writers can do anything they want now and should.”
The first crime authors Taylor read were Arthur Conan Doyle and Raymond Chandler but he was less interested in the mysteries than “the icy characterisation of Sherlock Holmes and Chandler's atmospheric descriptions of the city”. This is the argument that crime writing at its best is really a vehicle for other things.
“I think if someone enjoys reading crime, what they're really after is a story,” Taylor says. “You wouldn't accept Henning Mankell's world view if it was labelled as literature. In that instance the crime label becomes subversive: a trick to take the reader places they wouldn't go normally. In many other cases, the crime label is merely an excuse for bad writing.”
Thinking more about that issue of importing overseas conventions, Graham Beattie brings up the case of the 20-year-old Ben Sanders. “Apparently he's been reading crime fiction since he was about 11 and it shows because his character is a real smart-arse cop who doesn't mind bending the law to get results. That is so typical of American and British crime fiction.”
While he thinks Sanders is very promising, Beattie finds the book a little derivative. But there is something uncanny and thrilling about unfamiliar stories set in urban landscapes you know well: the very different Aucklands of Alix Bosco, Chad Taylor and Ben Sanders; the Dunedin of Sam Shepard, with its cafes and unruly students. When Beattie read the Sanders book he had the odd sensation of knowing every street, every building and every beach. “It made it very different to reading one set in New York or Detroit or Birmingham.”
The best and bloodiest: crime writers and readers pick their favourites
Graham Beattie, book blogger and crime reviewer.
"Vanda Symon impresses me most of the New Zealand writers. Ian Rankin is probably the best crime fiction writer in the world for my money."
Chad Taylor, novelist.
Locally: "Paul Thomas, although I know he has mixed feelings about the genre. Sadly his paying work and positive attitude to life is holding him back from writing more books."
Internationally: "James Ellroy, Pete Dexter, Martin Cruz Smith's Arkady Renko books. I think everyone else I like is dead ..."
Vanda Symon, novelist.
Locally: "Paul Cleave and Neil Cross have gripping stories. I like Paddy Richardson's writing because she has a psychological element."
Internationally: "I really enjoy some of the Australian crime writers. Peter Temple is fabulous. I've been reading Michael Robotham. I enjoy the Scandinavians: Stieg Larsson and a chap called Johan Theorin whose The Darkest Room just won the International Dagger Award. Those are dark and serious crime books. I also like the fun ones, like Janet Evanovich."
Craig Sisterson, blogger and crime enthusiast.
"There's a lot of good local writers. The three on the shortlist (Alix Bosco, Neil Cross, Vanda Symon). Paul Cleave is fantastic and under-appreciated. Andrew Grant is one to watch.''
Internationally: "There's like a million! James Lee Burke is a doyen. PD James. Michael Connelly. Michael Robotham. Simon Kernick. Mark Billingham. Val McDermid...''
This feature article was first published in the Your Weekend magazine of several Fairfax newspapers, including The Press and The Dominion Post, on Saturday 21 August 2010, and is reprinted here with the kind permission of Philip Matthews and Fairfax Magazines.