Thursday, October 22, 2015

10 Kiwi Scribes who Should be Chained Up until they Write Another Crime Novel (Part 2)

After decades of being maligned and overlooked, New Zealand crime writing is flourishing right now. But I want more. 

Back in July, I wrote about five Kiwi crime authors I'd love to see come back to the page

New Zealand crime writing appears on the rise right now - with lots of great writers and a real diversity of storytelling. We could do with more local readers giving our local authors a go and buying their books (as Ruth Todd noted at the recent Ngaio Marsh Award ceremony, our NZ writers are often more appreciated abroad than at home, which is sad), but hopefully that will come in time. 

It's been great in recent times to see the likes of Paul Thomas and Joan Druett bring back their marvellous characters Tito Ihaka and Wiki Coffin, after long hiatuses, as well as authors from other genres, such as Barbara Ewing, Tina Shaw, and Julie Thomas, turning to crime. All good things. But what about the other writers we want to come back, as the Kiwi crime wave continues to swell? 

In July I pointed the finger at Vanda Symon, Alix Bosco, Stella Duffy, Zirk van den Berg, and Chad Taylor. Five fantastic criminal masterminds who've gone too straight. Come back to the dark side! (Read that in your best James Earl Jones voice if required.) Today, I extend the net, capturing five more superb storytellers who've criminally denied us their novel-writing talents in recent times. 

So here's the second part of my top 10 New Zealand writers I'd love to see return to writing tales of murder, mystery, and mayhem. With a little twist or two (this is a mystery blog, after all). 

Now, I had intended to provide this part deux a little earlier, but y'know what they saw about good intentions. Roads to hell. The Ngaio Marsh Award, fatherhood, and many other things put me on my own hiatus. But I've come out of it now. And so should these rascally writers!!

Here's the second five: 

Three years ago, the New Zealand crime fiction community gathered for the WORD Christchurch festival, with crime debates, author panels, and the presentation of the third-ever Ngaio Marsh Award. Transplanted Brit Neil Cross, a man of dark mind and much talent, had been a finalist in all three years of the award, and that night saw him deservedly take home the trophy for the outstanding Luther: The Calling

And how has he repaid this outpouring of love for his crime novel writing? By skedaddling off into TV and movie land.

Okay, okay, Cross is a hell of a screenwriter. And his Ngaio-winning book was of course a prequel novel to the exceptional, Edgar and Golden Globe-winning TV cop drama Luther, starring Idris Elba, that Cross created, writes, and produces. We're ecstatic there's another instalment, a Christmas special, coming out soon. And we know that Cross has been frantic with movies and television the past four years, from Doctor Who episodes to writing horror flicks for Guillermo del Toro to the John Malkovich-starring Crossbones. Let alone all the other rumoured projects that we maybe-maybe not should/shouldn't talk about. Shush. 

But, selfishly, I want more Neil Cross novels. At least one more. Another John Luther tale would be terrific, or a dark and lyrical and chilling standalone, ala Captured. You know, the one where the crazy artist protagonist abducts and chains someone up til they get what they want. 

Sounds like a good plan for Mr Cross himself... 

Much like Neil Cross, young Auckland author Andrea Jutson created some truly memorable characters and some striking crime storytelling that veered dark and spooky, then she disappeared. Though she's been MIA even longer...

I first read Jutson when I was starting out on the crime reviewer gig in 2008. Along with Paul Cleave and Vanda Symon, she formed a new wave of young and talented Kiwi writers penning crime tales every bit as good as the overseas authors Kiwi readers buy in droves. I was impressed by Jutson's book that year, The Darkness Looking Back, and also its predecessor, Senseless (2005), which introduced reluctant psychic James Paxton. 

I'm not a massive paranormal fan, but I really enjoyed Jutson's Paxton tales, which reminded me a little of the TV shows Medium or Ghost Whisperer, if they were transplanted to suburban Auckland. A great mix of mystery with some paranormal sprinkled in, without overwhelming the crime and personal storylines. Jutson's books got good reviews on publication, with the Sunday Star-Times comparing her to Ruth Rendell and Jeffrey Deaver, but there haven't been any more since. 

Jutson is a fine writer, so it's a real shame that she hasn't (as far as I'm aware) published any other crime novels. I really liked the way she used a skeptical Auckland police detective and a reluctant psychic as foils to each other, along with several other intriguing characters, telling a gripping mystery tale while also evoking a good sense of modern-day Auckland, people and place. She nicely captured the team dynamics, gallows humour and piss-taking among police colleagues that some authors avoid (while focusing on drama and rivalries), and mixed dark and light very well. 

Last I heard, and it was a while ago, Jutson was continuing to write, and was working on books for younger readers along with some non-Paxton crime novels. Whether it's a new crime novel, or a resurrection of the fascinating James Paxton, I do hope we see more from Jutson at some point... 

In New Zealand, it seems the popular narrative when it comes to world-class local crime writing is that there was Ngaio Marsh in the Golden Age and post-war era, then Paul Thomas in the 1990s, then a group of fantastic authors of the past decade (Cleave, Symon, Bosco, Richardson, Sanders, Cross, McIlvanney, Malane et al) putting out multiple books. 

It's not that simple. Leaving aside the likes of Dorothy Eden, Elizabeth Messenger, and Laurie Mantell of Marsh's latter years, there were also other talented Kiwi crime and thriller writers striding along beside Paul Thomas in the 1990s. 

Michael Wall is a fine example. A former press officer for the Prime Minister, as well as an ad man and Deputy Chair of the Tourism Board, Wall crafted some great thrillers that still read very well twenty years later. I was very impressed by Friendly Fire (1998), which I read a few years ago after finding a copy in a secondhand store. In a review for NZLawyer for New Zealand Book Month, I called it the best political thriller I'd read in years, set right in our own seemingly benign democracy. 

I've also heard great things about Museum Street, Wall's earlier political thriller. My fellow Ngaio Marsh Award judge, Bernard Carpinter (now the crime critic for the New Zealand Listener), called Wall's first two thrillers "racy, stylish, funny and quite Kiwi" in a 2003 review of a later tale in New Zealand Books. Earlier this year I read The Cassino Legacy, Wall's third thriller, while back visiting family in New Zealand (I'd found that at a Sunday market booksale), and really enjoyed it too. More international in scope, but gripping, if veering a little towards the Alistair MacLean enjoyable but suspend your disbelief style I loved as a teenager. 

It's been nearly 15 years since Wall published a thriller, after five good to great books. It's like he's disappeared into the crime writers' witness protection programme - I couldn't even find a good photo of him, despite his former media-centric life in Parliament and advertising. I understand he continues to live on a farm in the lovely Wairarapa region north of Wellington, which Paul Thomas now also calls home. Perhaps Wall can take a leaf out of Thomas's book, and come back to crime after a similarly long absence. They made for a great duo in the 1990s, and it's time to bring back the band!

The Bonnie & Clyde of New Zealand television writing. With their well-told tales of lovable law-breakers, and knack for pacy plotting and character-focused stories, Lang & Griffin are without doubt among our country's finest crime writers. 

Together they've written and racked up awards and acclaim for several crime and mystery-centric television series, including Outrageous Fortune, The Blue Rose, and The Brokenwood Mysteries. They have a great knack for mixing action, character, and humour. Oh... hang on, isn't this meant to be an article about crime novelists who need to come back to crime? Told you to expect a twist or two.

Leaving aside that I initially thought it might have been Lang or Griffin and Lang together behind the Ngaio Marsh Award-winning Alix Bosco (until former All Blacks trialist, playwright and screenwriter Greg McGee later revealed himself as the literary femme fatale), this is an article about criminal minds, writers who bend and break the rules. So I'm doing the same. 

Lang and Griffin know how to tell a damned good story, and they both have a knack for crime and mystery tales on screen. Could they transfer this to a crime novel? Well there are plenty of example of crime writers who've done so: the likes of Dennis Lehane and George Pelecanos wrote for The Wire as well as penning award-winning crime novels. Our own Alix Bosco/Greg McGee and Donna Malane began with screen stories before turning to the page. Neil Cross balanced both for a while, and will do so again in future (right Neil? Don't make me get out the whips and chains...)

So yes, I'd love to see Lang and Griffin gave a crack at transferring their superb screenwriting skills into a cool New Zealand crime novel. Who knows how they might twist things... 

If we're going to bring Kiwi crime writers back to the page to join our modern wave of talented tellers of murder ans mystery tales, could we conclude with anyone other than the doyenne of New Zealand noir herself, Dame Ngaio? 

Oh, you see a flaw in my plan, right? For after a long lifetime lived on her own terms, entertaining and delighting millions on both the page and the stage (including 32 classic murder mysteries starring gentlemanly Inspector Roderick Alleyn), Dame Ngaio bid a final adieu back in 1982. 

But you've only got to take a look around to see that death doesn't conquer all, when it comes to writers. Not only do the books they've gifted us remain, which we can read and enjoy long after they themselves have gone, but the memorable characters they've created linger in our consciousness, and sometimes, grow beyond the author themselves. 

In recent times we've seen iconic crime characters like Lisbeth Salander and Hercule Poirot both resurrected by new authors, and there has of course been a long line of talented writers bringing us brand new James Bond tales over the decades. Recently, former Ngaio Marsh Award judge Mike Ripley, an award-winning British comic crime writer, was tasked with writing new tales featuring Margery Allingham's beloved Albert Campion. Could a writer to do the same with Ngaio's Alleyn? 

More than thirty years after her death, and eighty years after she first published a murder mystery, Ngaio Marsh remains in print and beloved by readers around the world. Could a new writer, perhaps a talented Kiwi, give us a brand new Inspector Alleyn tale, a la Sophie Hannah and Mike Ripley with Dame Ngaio's fellow Queens of Crime's famous and long-dead characters? What do you think? 

I hope you've enjoyed this op-ed piece - I'd love to hear your thoughts on the writers I've featured in the two parts (read the first part here), or other New Zealand or international crime writers you want to return to the page. Thanks for reading. 

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for your blog.I was beginning to think that the political thriller genre was completely absent in NZ lit. I googled big time and could find not one single book - until now. I managed to source two Michael Wall books on fishpond, and they are on the way. I'm relieved, as I'm having a crack at the genre myself and it's good to know I'm not alone and have some kind of benchmark. Do you know of any other political thrillers set in NZ? Meanwhile, my own contribution to NZ crime is 'The Maori Detective,' to be published later this year by Lang Book Publishing. Cheers, David.