Friday, January 30, 2015

Asian Drug Running and British Daggers


Asian drug-running and British daggers
Wellington-based NZSA member Bob Marriott talks to Craig Sisterson about being considered one of the best unpublished crime writers in the English-speaking world

A couple of messages from the British Crime Writers’ Association (CWA) could end up changing NZSA member Bob Marriott’s fiction-writing life. Last year, as part of a regular CWA email newsletter, Marriott, a Wellington-based freelance travel writer and former Naenae College teacher, discovered the CWA Debut Dagger, an unpublished crime writers’ competition open worldwide. Then in May Marriott found out he was one of 12 shortlisted authors selected from “hundreds and hundreds” of entries for the 2010 Debut Dagger.

Since 1998 the Debut Dagger has been part of the prestigious CWA Dagger Awards, which for half a century have recognised the best of the best in the crime and thriller writing world. A glance at previous Dagger winners reads like a veritable ‘Who’s Who’ of crime writing; PD James, Ruth Rendell, Ian Rankin, Colin Dexter, James Lee Burke, Reginald Hill, Sarah Paretsky, Henning Mankell, and many more. “When I read the names of some of the people involved, I thought, well, this has got to be pretty big,” says Marriot, with a chuckle.

As an unpublished novelist, it was the Debut Dagger that caught Marriott’s eye, especially since it was open worldwide and many previous entrants have gone from unknown to published author thanks to the competition. Marriott, who was born in England but moved to New Zealand in 1966, had been working on a thriller for several years; In the Lion’s Throat, an action-packed tale set amongst the spectacular scenery of Southeast Asia that he knew so well from his travel adventures. “I’ve travelled extensively and the characters I have met and the places I visited gave me the idea for a story,” says Marriott. “I worked on it spasmodically in between articles and travel for two or three years, then last year decided to finish the book then do something positive with it.”

One eye-opening trip into the Laos mountains provided plenty of fictional fodder. “It’s a hotbed of drug smuggling up that way, and they don’t really hide it in many cases,” he says. “They were growing opium [poppies] quite openly, and the guide said ‘we grow a little just for our own use’, with a sort of a little grin at the corner of his mouth, and I thought, well there’s acres and acres there. What I know about opium you could write on the back of a postage stamp, but I thought obviously there is more going on than meets the eye. It’s a sort of fairly lawless, remote area. I found it sort of mystic.”

Entrants for the Debut Dagger, which is open to anyone writing in the English language who has not yet had a novel published commercially, must submit the opening chapter(s) of their crime novel (up to 3,000 words) along with a short synopsis of the overall story. Although he thought his story might struggle to pique the judges’ interest, since it was “more of an action thriller” than a classic whodunnit, Marriott says he looked at the Debut Dagger “and thought, you know, what the heck?” After all, you’ve got to be in to win, and he’d been looking to “do something positive” with his completed manuscript.

Although he’d finished his full-length novel, Marriott still faced one final hurdle before he could enter; writing a good synopsis of In the Lion’s Throat. “I found of course that writing a decent synopsis is harder than writing the book,” he says with a laugh. Particularly when you’ve only got a certain amount of words - they wanted 500 words or something like that - to write what the whole book is about.” A good synopsis is fairly important, as the entire competition is judged \ on each entrant’s opening 3,000 words and synopsis. Unlike the recent NZSA/Pindar Publishing Prize (which incidentally was won by another Wellington-based budding crime writer, Donna Malane), where unpublished authors were shortlisted based on their extract and synopsis, but then the judges considered the full manuscripts of the finalists, for the CWA Debut Dagger the winner is chosen based solely on their extract and synopsis. “The amazing thing is, you don’t even have to have written the [entire] book,” says Marriott. “I mean, obviously if you want to get anywhere with it [later] you have to write the book.”

Marriott crafted his synopsis - distilling down his rollercoaster story of unorthodox Interpol Operator Brett Sadler waging war on drug smugglers in Southeast Asia and New Zealand into a few hundred words - paid his £25 entry fee, emailed his entry to the CWA, and promptly “forgot all about it”. So he was “surprised and delighted” to find out a few months later that In the Lion’s Throat had been selected by the judges (which include fiction editors from publishers Faber & Faber, Orion, and John Murray, along with a literary agent and the CWA Chairman) as one of the 12 finalists.

Speaking to Marriott in the week before the winner of the CWA Debut Dagger was announced at the Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival in late July, he says he has no expectations for In the Lion’s Throat to win, and is just thrilled to be on the shortlist. Rather than being an Oscar-esque ‘just happy to be nominated’ spiel, when it comes to the Debut Dagger it’s actually the case that being shortlisted can be as good as winning. Since its inception just over a decade ago, 23 winners and shortlisted authors have been published, and several have gone on to be recognised by major writing awards around the world. Inaugural winner Joolz Denby was short-listed for the 2005 Orange Prize for Fiction, 2001 winner Ed Wright was awarded the 2005 Shamus award for Best PI. novel by the Private Eye Writers of America, and Allan Guthrie won the 2007 Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year for Two Way Split, developed from his entry shortlisted in 2001. Barbara Cleverly, shortlisted in 1999, won the CWA Ellis Peters Historical Dagger award in 2004.

Another author who was shortlisted but didn’t win has perhaps been the most successful Debut Dagger alumni of all. Canadian Louise Penny’s manuscript for her mystery Still Life endured two years of constant rejection by publishers and literary agents around the world, until she decided to enter the 2004 competition. Making it through to the shortlist from around 800 entries that year, Penny was noticed by agents then publishers, and her career took off. Once published, Still Life went on to win the CWA New Blood Dagger (best first novel), the Crime Writers of Canada’s Arthur Ellis Award, and the Dilys, Barry, and Anthony awards in the United States.

The CWA established the Debut Dagger as a way for talented new crime fiction writers to be noticed, rather than lost amongst the ‘slush pile’ of submissions that accumulate on publishers’ and agents’ desks. The success of Penny’s debut and ongoing career (her Inspector Gamache series has featured on the New York Times bestseller list, been nominated for many literary awards, and earlier this year won the prestigious Agatha Award for an unprecedented third year in a row) is just one of many examples demonstrating the Dagger judges have a knack for spotting crime writing talent that might otherwise be overlooked by busy agents and publishers.

Marriott hopes that being shortlisted may likewise help In the Lion’s Throat get more of a chance. “The book is actually finished, it’s there for anybody who wants it, and I’m hoping of course, against hope, that some publisher or agent takes an interest.”

In the meantime, he’s continuing to travel, and continuing to write. He’s now working on a second travel-inspired thriller, set in Central America.

Craig Sisterson writes news, reviews and features for magazines and newspapers in New Zealand, Australia, the Pacific Islands, North America, and Europe. He is also the creator of Crime Watch, a website focused on New Zealand crime and thriller writing: 


This article was originally published in the August/September 2010 issue of NZ Author magazine. It is available from the archives of the National Library of New Zealand. 

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