This week I’m highlighting another lesser-known New Zealand mystery novel from decades past, UNCERTAIN QUEST by Elizabeth Messenger.
UNCERTAIN QUEST is set in the scenic Fiordland region of New Zealand, which is near the bottom of the South Island. High in the forbidding mountains a man named Grant has died in what was reported to have been an accident. However his widow, Lalia Grant, felt there was some mystery behind the accident and she flew across the world to discover the truth, certain that it would only be found at the scene of the tragedy. The first shock came when she arrived at the Palmer homestead to find her hostess murdered. Lalia immediately realised that someone wished the truth to remain hidden and that someone who had already committed murder would not hesitate to do so again.
Lalia, with her life in constant danger, continues her search for information but, when she finally discovers who murdered Vera Palmer, there awaits her a surprise that is to change the whole course of her life.
UNCERTAIN QUEST was published in hardcover in the UK in 1965 by Robert Hale, and is now only available via libraries and some second-hand dealers. It is a real shame that Messenger’s crime writing, which received good reviews in the UK on publication, has now been forgotten by New Zealanders. I’ve managed to source several of her crime novels, and I’m looking forward to reading them, and seeing how Messenger evokes 1950s-1960s rural New Zealand, and whether her characters and storylines stand up decades later.
Like most Kiwi writers of the time, and many of the 'genre' writers in much more recent times, Messenger was published by an overseas publisher (Robert Hale in London). "Elizabeth Messenger’s novels, once popular enough to be serialised and translated into other languages, are now difficult to obtain," says DNZB. I've certainly found that - even after trawling through countless online and real-life second-hand bookstores, and regularly searching the Internet and other resources as part of my unofficial research into New Zealand crime, mystery, and thriller writing, I only found out about her fairly recently. I have managed to source several of her books, but it's been a battle.From what I can gather, Messenger wrote at least nine crime/thriller novels in the 1950s/1960s, in addition to her journalism and cookery writing. They are:
- MURDER STALKS THE BAY
- MATERIAL WITNESS
- DIVE DEEP FOR DEATH
- LIGHT ON MURDER
- THE WRONG WAY TO DIE
- A HEAP OF TROUBLE
- YOU WON'T NEED A COAT
- PUBLICITY FOR MURDER; and
- GOLDEN DAWNS THE SUN.
Not a bad output, and it makes it even more remarkable - especially given our purported dearth of crime and thriller writers (other than Dame Ngaio Marsh) pre-1990 - that we seem to have almost completely forgotten about her. Just goes to underline that popular perception (eg New Zealand doesn't have much of a crime fiction history) is not necessarily reality.
What do you think of my 'U' choice? Have you ever heard of Elizabeth Messenger, or read any of her books (crime or otherwise)? Do you like reading older crime novels that are out of print, to see how ‘things have changed’ or to enjoy a different style? And what is it about the smell of old hardcover books? Comments welcome.