Sunday, November 24, 2013

Casting an eye over the Ngaio Marsh Award finalists (in today's Herald on Sunday)

In today's Herald on Sunday, I have returned as a crime fiction reviewer (after my six month-plus overseas hiatus), by taking a closer look at the four terrific finalists for this year's Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel. As was noted on the Award's Facebook page (click here to like and stay up to date), this year has seen the closest results in the history of the Award. The winner, by a whisker, will be announced on 2 December. So, watch this space (or the Facebook page).

But for now, here are some of my thoughts on the finalists:

The Laughterhouse by Paul Cleave
Like a dazzling black opal, Cleave’s prose burns vivid and bright against the darkness of his twisting, violent storylines. In THE LAUGHTERHOUSE, the 2011 Ngaio Marsh Award winner brings back fascinating and conflicted Theo Tate. It’d be hard not to be conflicted when your CV lists ex-cop, ex-private eye, and ex-prison inmate as high points. Tate is lured back to the darker side of ‘Crimechurch’ by old colleague Detective Schroder, who’s on the trail of a vengeful kidnapper and killer with ties to Tate’s first-ever crime scene. THE LAUGHTERHOUSE mixes brutality with brilliance. It won’t be for everyone’s tastes, but readers willing to explore the darkness on the edge of town will find ferocious storytelling that makes you think and feel. The pages whir, but you care too. Tate’s stumble towards redemption has bleak nobility, before Cleave delivers a gut punch of a finale.


Little Sister by Julian Novitz
Perhaps the surprise contender amongst this year’s Ngaio Marsh Award finalists, Novitz is better known for his acclaimed literary debut HOLOCAUST TOURS and scooping awards for his impressive short stories. However, he plants his second novel firmly in the land of crime and mystery, centring this tense, creepy ‘literary noir thriller’ around a brutal killing and its effects on everyone involved. Told from the multiple perspectives of high school trio Will, Shane, and Eileen, and their English teacher Mr Books, LITTLE SISTER is one of those books that raises more questions than it answers. What lead to Shane plunging a sword into Eileen’s father? How well do we really know the people close to us? What can the reader believe? Novitz masterfully takes us along an uneasy tightrope in this multi-layered, thought-provoking tale that lingers long after the final page.


The Faceless by Vanda Symon
New Zealand’s contemporary Queen of Crime takes a breather from her excellent series featuring stroppy Southern copper Sam Shephard to delve into Auckland’s dark underbelly in this confronting standalone thriller. Told from multiple perspectives, The Faceless follows three troubled people thrown together due to a moment of madness. Bradley, an overworked, underappreciated office worker snaps, imprisoning Billy, a young K Road hooker, in an abandoned warehouse. Homeless Max, a shell of his former self, is forced to reopen past wounds to save his young friend. THE FACELESS takes readers to uncomfortable places and addresses several thought-provoking issues, including disconnection, and how we move through life not really ‘seeing’ so many of the people that surround us. I love Sam Shephard, but THE FACELESS is Symon’s masterpiece, her best book yet.


Death on Demand by Paul Thomas
In the mid 1990s, Thomas tore Kiwi crime fiction from the cosy confines of the classic British-style murder mystery into mayhem-filled modernity with a trio of novels featuring, in ways large and small, hulking Maori investigator Tito Ihaka. “Elmore Leonard on acid” was how one overseas critic aptly described Thomas’s award-winning prose. Fifteen years later, Thomas and his anarchic knight errant of a detective made a very welcome return. A series of seemingly unrelated deaths collide when Ihaka is recalled from his Wairarapa marooning to hear the deathbed confession of a hit and run victim’s husband. On the trail of an unknown hit man, Ihaka has to dance around police politics and old grudges in an investigation complicated by blackmail, gangs, and more. A triumphant, fun return, mixing helter-skelter action with witty dialogue, fascinating characters, and a ‘hero’ that’s like a time bomb waiting to explode.


Craig Sisterson created and launched the Ngaio Marsh Award in 2010, and is the non-voting Judging Convenor for this year’s award, which will be announced on 2 December.

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