Saturday, August 2, 2014

"Rules are made to be broken" - the borders of crime writing?

As we've been going through the judging process for the 2014 Ngaio Marsh Awards, it's been hard not to reflect on a few things, as its the fifth presentation of the Award this year. One thing that comes up now and then, both from judges, readers, publishers, and even authors, is the question about what does or does not constitute a "crime, mystery, thriller, or suspense novel" - ie the books that are eligible for New Zealand's indigenous crime writing award. As the creator and Judging Convenor of the Award, I've always taken a broader look at crime fiction than perhaps some others might. That would explain how books such as Dorothy Fowler's WHAT REMAINS BEHIND, Maurice Gee's ACCESS ROAD, James McNeish's THE CRIME OF HUEY DUNSTAN, and this year Eleanor Catton's Man Booker Prize-winning THE LUMINARIES and Alan Duff's FREDERICK'S COAT have found themselves in consideration and making the longlist over the years.

To some people, these books wouldn't seem like 'crime novels' in the classic sense, even though they all have plenty of thriller, mystery, or crime aspects to them, and/or deal with crimes that have been committed or the effects of crime on the characters (ie 'crime' is a pretty core part of the books, in some shape or form).

When I established the Ngaio Marsh Award in 2010, my purpose was to highlight and celebrate the best of crime writing in New Zealand. For many years I have been an advocate for crime writing, pointing to quality writing in the genre, and how great characters, settings, and thought-provoking social issues and universal themes are touched on or woven into exciting stories in a sector of the books world that some may see as very plot-based or more concerned about thrilling incidents. I can't stand the snobbery that some in the books world have against genre fiction. Good writing is good writing, however you label it.

[Side note: I had to edit the above paragraph when I realised I had automatically started it with my usual passive voice "When the Award was established in 2010" before changing it to the 'royal we' more active "When we established..." The truth is I've had a lot of help along the way, and the past few years my ingrained Kiwi humbleness keeps me trying to deflect credit from what I've done, as I want the focus to be on the writers. But the truth is I established the Award, and by deflecting and demurring, I'm being a bit inauthentic, even if with good intentions. Time to stand up and own who I am, what I've done, and what I care about a bit more, eh Brene Brown? So yeah, I established the Award in 2010, with the support of many great people. Thank you.]

Anyway, back to it - sure, there is plenty of average and poor crime writing out there, just as there is poorer writing in any genre, including 'literary fiction'. There are also terrific tales that revolve around crime, not just in recent years but throughout the centuries - plenty of classic literature, Shakespeare, Greek tragedies, and folk tales and other myths and legends are full of crime and thriller aspects, and they've stood the test of time for their characters and themes and the way they make us look at aspects of the world or ourselves, as much as their exciting plots. The best of modern day crime writing can do the same, I believe. For anyone who sneers or looks down their nose at the entire genre or says it's somehow 'less than', just throw a John Hart or William Deverell novel at their head. Or push an entire shelf of James Lee Burke on top of them.

When I established the Award, I also wanted to avoid any reverse genre snobbery, ie where more literary thrillers or general novels that had strong crime or mystery elements but weren't classic whodunnits or detective novels were cold-shouldered. I wanted the Award to be inclusive, and as I looked around the world for models from which we would create our own New Zealand Award, I was delighted to come across the Dashiell Hammett Award given by the International Association of Crime Writers. This award (pictured left) has been won by the likes of Margaret Atwood (THE BLIND ASSASSIN), and is given annually for literary excellence in the field of crime-writing. So it's about the best-written books that come within a broad definition of crime, mystery, thriller, suspense, or espionage. I liked that idea, so I pilfered it (maybe I've been reading too many crime novels after all, haha) and put our Kiwi twist on it.

However, we've never really published a set criteria for the Ngaio Marsh Award, as I have wanted to be flexible and inclusive - more of a gut feel about whether a book has enough crime-centric content in it, or deals with crime or investigations or mysteries in such a way that makes it eligible. Messy, perhaps? But I've never been one for hard-and-fast rules, despite my legal background. This lack of public disclosure about the criteria, or having a set criteria, has made things confusing sometimes for judges and readers, publishers, and authors. But hey, sometimes doing things the right way is a little harder or messier. I'm okay with that.

After the announcement of this year's long-list, which includes eight terrific novels that are all very different from each other, and veer from 'classic crime' to more literary fare, I was delighted to see that Random House New Zealand publisher Harriet Allan, who helped shepherd Paul Cleave's early career as well as publishing some other local crime writers over the years, had some very interesting things to say. One of her authors, Alan Duff (most famous internationally for ONCE WERE WARRIORS, which was turned into a brutal and memorable film starring Temuera Morrison and Rena Owen), has made the longlist with his latest novel FREDERICK'S COAT. This book is "a powerful story of love between father and son, of contrasting ways of looking at the world and of revenge", which is set in the world of violence and criminals, after the father gets out of prison and looks to make a new life and escape his old life.

As Allan says in her excellent and thoughtful blog post on the Random House website:
"We weren't sure whether Frederick’s Coat would qualify, given it isn’t a police procedural or whodunit. There is plenty of crime in Alan’s novel, but the focus is more an exploration of how to escape it and how to respond to it, rather than a traditional form of crime fiction. It’s enlightening to reconsider the novel from the perspective of the crime angle, and likewise reconsider the genre from the perspective of Alan’s novel."
This is exactly the sort of thinking I was going for when the Award was originally established (oops, when I established the Award - habits are hard to break). You can read Allan's full post, which has some interesting thoughts about genre and writing, here. I particularly like Allan's closing comment that "one of the joys of fiction is that rules are there to be broken, definitions are not limitations, writing is not static but continues to evolve, delight and surprise". Exactly!

So as we head towards the announcement of the four finalists for the 2014 Award, I am very happy to see that the genre is being thought of more widely, and perhaps more positively, here in New Zealand than  it was a few years ago. I'm looking forward to meeting our finalists in Christchurch, whoever they end up being from amongst the eight excellent authors on the longlist (I wasn't wrong that this would be the toughest year for the judges yet), and seeing the winner accept their well-deserved Award at the end of the month.

Great writing is great writing, after all. Regardless of genre labels.

What do you think of the Ngaio Marsh Award's broad definition of 'crime writing'? Does it matter to you the genre labels put on fiction? Do you prefer classic whodunnits or private eye capers, or do books that explore other aspects of crime or mystery appeal to you too? I'd love to read your thoughts. Comments welcome.


  1. A good read is a good read, no matter its label. My reading tends towards crime/mystery, and you have introduced many writers new to me - the pile by the bed and on my Kindle grows steadily. I am reading my way through the long list (as I have done each year) to see if I agree with the final decision ( not always). You have quite a challenge with this year's list. Good luck.

  2. That's very true Jeannie. Glad to hear you've been trying some of the other books. To be honest, I'm only about 50% on picking the winner myself. Each year has been a close-ish call, and comes down to taste amongst several books of good quality. Not a bad problem to have for the judges.