Tuesday, December 13, 2011

A nationwide crime spree: my tiki tour for NZ Author magazine

a nationwide crime spree
there’s been a noticeable growth in locally-written crime fiction in recent years. Craig Sisterson surveys the landscape from north to south, looking at the emerging hotspots

When the four finalists for the 2011 Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel gathered in Christchurch recently for the well-attended “Setting the Stage for Murder” event, not only did they represent some of the best examples of contemporary Kiwi-written crime fiction, but also its geographic spread across the country: Alix Bosco (revealed as playwright and screenwriter Greg McGee) from Auckland, Neil Cross from Wellington, winner Paul Cleave of Christchurch, and Paddy Richardson from Dunedin.

From Northland to Southland and everywhere in between, it’s becoming clear that more and more we have a number of local storytellers who are capable of weaving top quality tales of mystery, murder, and mayhem. Writers who have something interesting to offer readers, here and abroad, who enjoy this most thrilling (and globally popular) of genres.

As can be seen, there’s a diverse array of storytelling, setting, and styles on offer – something for everyone, reading-wise – as we take a little ‘tiki tour’ around the country.

An archaeological dig amongst the beauty of the Kaipara Harbour was the setting for Waiheke Island resident Dorothy Fowler’s intriguing debut mystery What Remains Behind (Black Swan, 2009). Switching narratives between the sabotage-affected modern-day dig and diary entries detailing events prior to a 120-year-old tragedy, Fowler also evokes a good sense of rural small town Northland, then and now. Just down the road in Mangawhai, travel specialist and former journalist Roy Vaughan has also recently debuted on New Zealand bookshelves with The Mereleigh Record Club Tour of New Zealand (Eloquent Books, 2009), which centres on a group of 60-somethings who unwittingly get caught up with an international drug ring, and a police and customs sting, as they tour New Zealand trying to recapture the rock’n’roll days of their youth.

Gulf Harbour resident Michael Green is partway through penning a page-turning thriller trilogy focused on a small group of survivors of a global pandemic. The second instalment, Blood Bond (Arrow, 2009), is set locally, and in England and on the high seas and countries in between, and Green is currently working on the third book in the series.

Overseas, many the career of a bestselling crime writer has had as its spine the creation and crafting of an intriguing hero (or two) capable can carrying an ongoing series. Readers will follow a beloved character as much (if not more) than an author. As such, it’s been terrific to see two fascinating local protagonists emerge over the past couple of years in nascent but promising series set in our biggest and most cosmopolitan city. First, we were introduced to middle-aged legal researcher Anna Markunas in Cut & Run (Penguin, 2009), a terrific thriller kickstarted by the tabloid fodder murder of a famed rugby player while in the arms of a high-profile socialite. Markunas is a terrific creation; a troubled but likeable heroine, filled with inner conflict, contradictions, doubts and authentic emotions. Combined with Bosco/McGee’s vivid and pacy storytelling, and great touch for the Auckland setting (the glitz-gilded grittiness of the CBD to the ‘mean streets’ of the southern suburbs), it’s easy to see why Cut & Run was praised by Scottish crime fiction star Val McDermid at an event last year, and went on to win the inaugural Ngaio Marsh Award in November 2010. Markunas continued to develop as a fascinating and complex heroine in Slaughter Falls (Penguin, 2010), a finalist for the 2011 award, and readers will be hopeful the series continues in coming years.

Last year also saw the introduction of Detective Sergeant Sean Devereaux, the main character in local wunderkind Ben Sanders’ The Fallen (HarperCollins, 2010), which sat atop the bestseller list for several weeks and was one of the biggest-selling New Zealand books of 2010, and By Any Means (HarperCollins, 2011). Devereux is an enigmatic, intriguing hero, and his narration is peppered with pithy comments, asides, and observations. The talented Sanders, a 21 year old uni student, has a punchy, crisp prose style, and a good touch for both pace and ‘telling details’ that give you a great sense of character and place. Like Bosco/McGee, he evokes Auckland well as a gritty backdrop to his thrillers, providing international quality crime fiction in a decidedly local setting, with bodies found in Albert Park, motorway car chases, and drive-by shootings in the CBD.

The regions between our biggest city and our capital city currently provide slimmer pickings when it comes to contemporary crime fiction, despite what would seem like a plethora of intriguing landscapes, geographic and demographic, and issues that could provide great fodder and colour for a well-told thriller story. Back in the day, Dame Ngaio Marsh even brought her English gentleman detective Inspector Alleyn to the volcanic plateau in Colour Scheme (1943), a murder mystery tinged with war intrigue.

Nowadays, one pleasing exception to the central North Island crime fiction drought is Palmerston North teacher Ken Benn, who has begun a young adult thriller series with Lethal Deliveries (Penguin, 2010), an exciting tale of sports-loving teenagers who get caught up in the world of gangs and drug dealing. Shortlisted for the LIANZA Young Adult Fiction Award this year, Benn’s debut bluntly addresses the tough circumstances and troubling issues some Kiwi kids face, leaving readers on tenterhooks for book two.

The capital’s king of contemporary crime fiction is undoubtedly acclaimed screenwriter and novelist Neil Cross, who from his home in the Wellington suburbs has penned a number of terrific psychological thrillers, as well as creating the award-winning BBC TV crime drama Luther, starring Idris Elba (The Wire) in the titular role. While Cross sets his crime stories, books and TV, in his native Britain rather than his adopted home, he is a key part of the local crime fiction landscape: a twice finalist for the Ngaio Marsh Award (for Burial (Simon & Schuster, 2009) and Captured (Simon and Schuster, 2010)); a popular speaker at various arts and books festivals here and abroad; and serving as an example that New Zealand-based writers can succeed on the world stage.

Cross is a master of brooding, slightly off-kilter tales in bleak yet menacing settings populated with characters neither starkly good nor evil, but smudged shades of grey. Although his novel Always the Sun, a frightening tale of the steps a gentle man takes after learning his child is being bullied, was longlisted for the 2004 Booker Prize, Cross has said that he is continually irritated and baffled by the idea that books labelled ‘literary’ are often considered superior or “more important” than books labelled ‘popular’ or ‘genre’ fiction, regardless of quality. “All that’s important is that I tell an interesting and engrossing story,” he says. Books can delve into a variety of deep themes, and should be informed by a writer’s views and how they see the world, but such complexity and insights “should come through the telling of the story” – something done very well by the best crime fiction writers here and overseas– rather than being “stapled onto the book”.

Last year, TV writer-producer Donna Malane joined Cross in the Wellington crime writers’ fraternity when her debut novel Surrender (NZSA, 2010) was published to good reviews after winning the NZSA-Pindar Publishing Prize. Powered by a vivid and captivating narrative voice (first person, through the eyes of heroine Dianne Rowe), Surrender has an absorbing mystery storyline as Rowe delves into the seedy underbelly of Wellington; a drug-fuelled world of strip clubs, sex workers, and hidden dangers.

Earlier this year, Upper Hutt author Cat Connor added to her series starring FBI Agent Ellie Conway, available in e-book form from the likes of Amazon and iTunes, with an exciting third instalment, Exacerbyte, which brings Conway and her colleagues to New Zealand, on the trail of an elusive child trafficker. Wellington is also home to maritime expert Joan Druett, who has marvelously combined mystery and history in four novels and several short stories starring her part-Maori seaman Wiki Coffin.

Heading across the Cook Strait to the sun-drenched Top of the South brings us to horse-loving poet, playwright, and children’s author Lindy Kelly’s debut adult thriller Bold Blood (HarperCollins, 2009). The Nelsonian’s tale of assaults, arsons, horse theft and murder set in the high stakes world of horse breeding proved popular with readers, and hit #1 on the local bestseller list. Nelson is also home to iconic New Zealand author Maurice Gee, who over the decades has penned dozens of beloved tales, ranging from children’s to adult, fantasy to realism, and the occasional dip or two into psychological crime and thriller with the likes of In My Father’s Den and Crime Story. His latest (and perhaps last) adult novel, Access Road (Viking, 2009) scratches at the surface of a fictionalised West Auckland, revealing the menace beneath the mundane as an elderly everywoman searches for the historic reasons behind her bedridden brother’s silence.

Down the (west) coast we find ourselves amongst some of New Zealand’s most spectacular scenery for former national park worker Trish McCormack’s debut mystery, Assigned to Murder (Poutini Press, 2009), which is being taken to the Frankfurt Book Fair this year. Glacier guide Philippa investigates the murder of her old flatmate in an intriguing mystery packed with complex human relationships and stunning landscapes.

Several modern-day New Zealand crime and thriller writers call Canterbury home, the most prominent of which is Paul Cleave, winner of the 2011 Ngaio Marsh Award for his fourth dark Christchurch-set thriller Blood Men (Random House, 2010). Cleave’s acclaimed locally-set and written crime novels have been translated into many languages, and appeared on bestseller lists in several countries, including Germany, France, and Turkey, selling several hundred thousand copies abroad. Like Dame Ngaio herself, Cleave is succeeding abroad as a crime writer while being somewhat overlooked or underappreciated by the wider books community here at home. And, like Cross, he is showing that New Zealand crime writers can excel on the world stage, and that we should not feel any ‘cultural cringe’ about our own writing. Recently, his fifth novel, Collecting Cooper (Atria, 2011), perhaps his best novel yet, became his second book published in the United States. It sees the return of former cop and private eye Theo Tate, who after being released from prison finds himself reluctantly on the trail of a dangerous killer, and a missing student. It’s easy to see why Cleave’s writing has attracted international attention: his vivid prose crackles with energy, his characters are compelling and complex, and he delves deeply into psychology and other issues while never taking his foot off the storytelling accelerator.

Joining Cleave in calling Canterbury home are contemporary thriller writers Steve Malley – Poison Door (Createspace, 2011), a gritty Christchurch-set thriller featuring a tough cop, a troubled teen, and a vicious drug kingpin, is now available on Kindle and Smashwords.com – and Grant Shanks. The latter writes thrillers under the name Andrew Grant, including the Ngaio Marsh Award longlisted spy tale Death in the Kingdom (Monsoon Books, 2007), and its sequel Singapore Sling Shot (Monsoon Books, 2009), both of which have recently become more readily available here in New Zealand.

Heading further south we find ourselves in another hotbed of contemporary Kiwi crime fiction, as several talented authors call Dunedin home; Vanda Symon, Paddy Richardson, Liam McIlvanney, and Andrew Porteous. Earlier this year Symon, a previous Ngaio Marsh Award finalist, released Bound (Penguin, 2011), the fourth and possibly best instalment yet in her acclaimed series starring Sam Shepard, who has risen through the police ranks from sole-charge Mataura cop in Overkill (Penguin, 2007) to put-upon junior detective for the Dunedin CID. Symon hasn’t yet been published as broadly as Cleave or Cross internationally, but her storytelling skills, snappy dialogue, vivid characters and settings, and flashes of humour have impressed readers and reviewers here and abroad.

Symon was joined in the Dunedin crime family by Paddy Richardson in 2008 (creepy psychological thriller A Year to Learn a Woman), recent Scottish immigrant Liam McIlvanney in 2009 (superlative thriller All the Colours of the Town, set amongst the sectarian violence of Glasgow and Belfast) and Andrew Porteous in 2010 (A Political Affair, which was published after winning a UK-based unpublished manuscript award, and introduced part Maori Dunedin detective Lachlan Doyle).

Clearly there’s something in the water down south. Richardson has also penned Hunting Blind – a superb tale melding family drama and psychological suspense as a woman tries to uncover what happened to her kid sister, many years go – and will soon have another book hitting shelves. Traces of Red, a psychological thriller centred on a failed TV journalist who believes a convicted triple murderer is innocent, is released in November. McIlvanney is also reportedly working on another thriller starring journalist Gerry Conway, and like himself, may even emigrate his hero to New Zealand in future.

Without a doubt, New Zealand crime fiction has experienced pleasing growth in recent times, numbers and quality-wise, thanks to the books and authors mentioned here, and a few more. The snowball has started rolling down the hill, and it will be fascinating to see just how big it can get, here and abroad, if local readers who enjoy a bit of mystery and thrills in their reading become more willing to discover the talents we have right here.


Craig Sisterson writes for a variety of publications in several countries. He is the Judging Convenor of the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel, and the creator of Crime Watch, a website focused on New Zealand crime and thriller writing: http://www.kiwicrime.blogspot.com/.

This article was first published in the October/November issue of New Zealand Author magazine, the official publication of the New Zealand Society of Authors. It is reprinted in full here with the kind permission of Editor Adrian Blackburn.

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