Thursday, August 25, 2011

Five Favourite Thrillers: Stephen Stratford

Last week I began a brand new series here on Crime Watch - Five Favourite Kiwi Thrillers - inspired by prolific and diverse New Zealand novelist David McGill. This week I have the second edition, featuring a selection of Kiwi titles chosen by a man who's very well known and influential in the New Zealand books industry, Stephen Stratford.

Stratford has published more than a dozen books, mostly non-fiction. He has edited more than 100 other books, and currently runs the manuscript assessment service Write Right. He is a NZ Society of Authors representative on the Board of Copyright Licensing Ltd. His journalism work includes writing for Quote Unquote, Metro and the New Zealand Listener. A founding trustee of the Auckland Writers & Readers Festival (our biggest literary festival), Stephen has also been a judge of the Spectrum Book Design Awards, the Montana NZ Book Awards, and he convened the judges for the 2010 NZ Post Book Awards.

For those overseas, the latter two awards are kind of New Zealand's equivalent of the Miles Franklin Award in Australia, or the Booker Prize in the UK - they're our country's biggest books awards, that usually are won by literary fiction, in the fiction categories. He also writes the very interesting Quote Unquote blog.

Importantly, for our purposes here, Stratford is also a longtime fan of crime and thriller fiction, and I am very glad to host him and his comments here on Crime Watch today. Here are his five favourite Kiwi thrillers:

Five favourite Kiwi thrillers – Stephen Stratford

 SHIRKER by Chad Taylor (2000)
Summary: Ellerslie Penrose, a part-time futures broker, finds a junkie's body in an Auckland dumpster, steals his wallet and embarks on a hallucinatory journey into the shadow life of the dead man. This brings him into contact with fantasy bordellos, mysterious manuscripts, bizarre antiques dealers, and a sleazy nest of quirky happenstance

Note: SHIRKER was published in several countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany, and readers around the world may still be able to find the odd new copy from online booksellers, as well as second-hand copies.

Stratford’s take: “You can’t go past a novel with a protagonist called Ellerslie Penrose. Recognisable Auckland settings just slightly askew, recognisable characters very much askew. The best New Zealand prose stylist of his generation, I reckon.”

OVERKILL by Vanda Symon (2007)
Summary: When the body of a young mother is found a small rural community is rocked by her tragic suicide. But all is not what is seems. Sam Shephard, sole-charge police constable in Mataura, soon has to face the realisation that there’s a killer in town, and because the women was the wife of Sam’s former lover, she’s on the list of suspects and suspended from duties. Sam must cast aside personal feelings and take matters into her own hands.

Note: Hasn’t been widely published outside of Australasia yet (there was a German translation), but there are new copies still available in bookstores, and overseas readers can source the book via New Zealand sources, or some online booksellers.

Stratford’s take: “Our introduction to Sam Shephard. The three sequels are great too but I love the Mataura setting in this. And it’s really funny.”

NOBODY DIES by Zirk van den Berg (2004)
Summary: A South African policewoman has found the perfect way to make sure people in her witness protection programme stay hidden – she kills them! As her victims are meant to disappear, her crimes stay hidden. Then Daniel Enslin enters the programme…

Note: Had fallen out-of-print, although still available in second-hand bookstores and libraries. However, has recently been released as an e-book available on Smashwords.

Stratford’s take: “Tough, spare, and redefines the concept of cop-killer. I can’t understand why this hasn’t gone international.”

ONE NIGHT OUT STEALING by Alan Duff (1991)
Summary: Traces traces the increasingly desperate circumstances that lead a Pakeha small-time criminal with big ambitions, and his more sensitive Maori ‘partner’, to their ‘one night out stealing’ in Wellington, and the divergence between them that results.

Note: From the same author who wrote ONCE WERE WARRIORS, which was adapted into a terrific independent film starring Temuera Morrison as abusive husband Jake ‘the Muss’ Heke.

Stratford’s take: “Dark stuff, mostly uncomfortable, but it all rings true and is thoughtful. Years ago Alan told me he thought it was his best novel. I agree.”

 HUNTING BLIND by Paddy Richardson (2010)
Summary: On a perfect summer's day, at a school picnic beside a lake, a little girl goes missing, leaving a family devastated and a community asking questions. Seventeen years later her sister, Stephanie, is practising as a psychiatrist. A new patient's revelations force her to re-examine her sister's disappearance. Why are their stories so similar? Unable to let the matter rest, Stephanie embarks on a journey to find out what happened to her sister.

Note: Was one of the finalists for the 2011 Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel. Available new in New Zealand bookstores and online.

Stratford’s take: “I have been haunted by this since I first read it. It is based on every parent’s nightmare, so can’t help but grip, but the writing and characterisation are of a very high order.”


What do you think about the new series? About Stratford’s choices? Have you read any of these five novels? Do they sound intriguing? Who else would you like to see be part of the new 'Five Fantastic Kiwi Thrillers' series? Comments, critiques and suggestions appreciated.


  1. Thanks Craig, I've only read Vanda's Overkill, but will look into this suggestions to find out if they are available at reasonable prices here.

  2. Nobody Dies is also available on Amazon.