Friday, May 12, 2017

Five Terrific, Must-Read Kiwi Crime Novels Set in Otago

The biannual Dunedin Writers & Readers Festival is now in full swing, with plenty of terrific events for booklovers to enjoy over this weekend. A big highlight is the Crime Time session with visiting mystery masterminds Ian Rankin, Stella Duffy, and MJ Carter, chaired by local crime queen Vanda Symon, but there's plenty more fantasticness on offer (see full programme here, crime picks here).

Inspired by our own City of Literature bringing some great international crime writers to Otago (and this feature I read today highlighting five classic Auckland-set novels in the lead-up to AWRF), I thought I'd reciprocate by sharing a reading list of superb Otago-set crime tales that can give readers from around the world a page-turning story infused with a real sense of this southern province in New Zealand.

So pull up a couch (don't set it on fire), grab your blue and yellow scarf, and let's dive in.

Given she's chairing the Crime Time panel at the Dunedin Writers & Readers Festival, it seems only appropriate to start with New Zealand's modern day Queen of Crime. A former pharmacist who's recently completed a PhD studying the use of poisons in crime fiction by the likes of Dame Ngaio Marsh in crime fiction, Symon is also a medal-winning competitor in masters-level fencing. So the Dunedin author is doubly deadly in real life, let alone her excellent crime novels.

Symon has written five crime novels so far, including four in her Sam Shephard series. Her books have been shortlisted for the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel three times, translated into German, and praised as “superlative storytelling packed with vivid scenes, touches of humour, and one of the most engaging heroines around”.

Symon’s 2008 follow-up to her excellent debut Overkill finds heroine Sam Shephard having moved to Dunedin from Mataura; bridges burnt. Undertaking detective training, Sam’s on the bottom rung of the ladder. The Ringmaster opens with a murder in the Botanic Gardens, before switching to stroppy Sam’s first-person narration. Marginalised, she struggles to participate in the investigation, working in her own time and feeding off the scraps her partner Smithy smuggles her way. She eventually uncovers a link between the visiting circus, and a series of deaths throughout the lower South Island.

One of many great facets of this novel is Symon's use of the Dunedin setting. From the opening murder beside the Leith, to Highlanders games, and student life, Symon brings alive this southern city. When interviewed, Symon has said, “a town will have a feel, a social background. I like using Dunedin. It has a vibrancy and an edge with the students and all that brings with it.”

HUNTING BLIND by Paddy Richardson
Symon’s fellow Kiwi crime queen Paddy Richardson is also appearing onstage this weekend, tasked with riding shotgun to the infectious energy of Tokoroa-raised novelist, theatremaker, and Fun Palaces champion Stella Duffy (grab your tickets here). Richardson is herself a prolific writer, with two collections of shorts stories and seven novels under her belt. Five of Richardson’s seven novels have been top notch psychological thrillers. Her books have been shortlisted for the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel twice, translated into German, and been praised for blending modern thrillers with social commentary and history, creating very New Zealand stories that are “stylishly written and compellingly plotted”.

While all of Richardson’s psychological thrillers are good to outstanding reads, the one that screams ‘Otago’ to me the most is Hunting Blind, which was shortlisted for the 2011 Ngaio Marsh Award.  The story begins at a lakeside school picnic in Wanaka, Central Otago, back in the late 1980s. Minna Anderson is there with her four children, when tragedy strikes. Her four-year-old daughter Gemma disappears. A massive search fails to turn up any trace, not even a body. The family is torn apart by the tragedy, but the investigation eventually fades. Many years later Gemma's sister Stephanie is completing a psychiatry course in Dunedin, when she's assigned a suicidal and uncommunicative new patient who gradually reveals an eerily similar story. While reluctant to reopen old wounds, Stephanie is compelled to investigate - could the same person be responsible for both abductions?

This is a terrific read, a character study crime novel that's "a gripping and truly human story of what happens when families have to cope with the unthinkable", further elevated by its strong sense of place. As US mystery writer, professor, critic (and now Ngaio Marsh Awards judge) Margot Kinberg said back in her 2011 review for Crime Watch, "As Stephanie searches for Gemma’s abductor, she travels to several places on South Island, and each is described in lovely but not overburdening detail. One gets a really authentic sense of life there not just from the physical setting but from several other little touches that really add to the context".

The most recent of my recommendations, just published last year and in the running for this year's Ngaio Marsh Awards (judging is currently going on). Finn Bell is a new addition to the #yeahnoir ranks, with the Dunedin-based full-time author releasing both his debut Dead Lemons, and Pancake Money, on Amazon Kindle in 2016. He has another two crime novels coming out this year.

I first came across a mention of Bell's writing thanks to the well-respected British website, CrimeFictionLover, which gave a big thumbs up to Dead Lemons as part of its 'Ten to Taste' roundup of top self-published novels that could 'blow your mind', last November. A separate, more in-depth review on the same website was equally effusive, calling Bell a talented writer who'd "constructed a compelling and accomplished story that doesn't wallow or stall... this slice of Kiwi noir is very moreish" and that he was a welcome arrival and an author to watch in future.

I was intrigued. And having now read Bell's first two novels, I can see why the overseas critics were raving. While both are very good crime reads from a distinctive new voice, Bell’s debut is set in Southland and this second tale is based in Otago, so Pancake Money gets the nod here. Bobby Ress is a Dunedin detective with a family life who just wants to make a difference. But he's thrust into a horrifying case when two Catholic priests are not only murdered, but martyred in torturous, medieval fashion, Ress and his partner Pollo don't know whether they're hunting a vicious serial killer, or a team of vigilantes exacting some sort of revenge. As they dig into the priests' pasts, they have to confront some of the darkest corners of humanity, putting their own lives on the line.

This is clever, dark crime fiction populated with engaging characters, authentic relationships, a strong narrative drive, and powerful threads about philosophy and human psychology. All set against a cinematic evocation of Otago's urban and rural landscapes, which add to the moody atmosphere.

TWISTER by Jane Woodham
If you like deeply character-centric crime, then this recent Kiwi crime novel, which was a finalist in last year's Best First Novel category at the Ngaio Marsh Awards, could be right up your alley.

Woodham, who immigrated to Dunedin from London almost twenty years ago, is a founding member of the Dunedin Detection Club, alongside fellow Ngaio Marsh Award finalists Symon and Richardson, and 2014 Ngaio Marsh Award winner Liam McIlvanney. Before writing Twister, Woodham had twice been a finalist in the prestigious BNZ Katherine Mansfield Short Story Competition, and had her short stories published in New Zealand and the United Kingdom. She certainly knows her way around a great story, and how to craft deep, authentic characters that tug at readers’ hearts and minds as the pages turn.

In Twister, Dunedin is suffering from a series of plagues: an unseasonal flu epidemic, cats are getting tortured, and a spate of gay bashings. When a storm tears up the city, the body of a missing schoolgirl is uncovered. It’s a particularly tough case for Detective Senior Sergeant Leo Judd, whose own daughter disappeared nine years ago. He and his wife Kate have never really recovered, and unbeknownst to Judd, Kate has been having an affair with their old neighbour, Rea, and intends to leave him. Pressure mounts on the work and home fronts, as Judd tries to overcome his own grief while Kate plucks up the courage to confess not just her affair, but a secret she’s been keeping for years.

This is a very fine novel that’s as much or more about the impact of crime on the people involved, as solving crime or catching criminals. Woodham crafts an emotional spiderweb of human relationships, with the investigation bubbling along in the background and used to ramp up tension and reveal character. She also does an excellent job evoking a strong sense of Dunedin. As US author and Ngaio Marsh Awards judge Margot Kinberg said, "It’s the kind of ‘small world’ place where people know each other and where gossip spreads ... Woodham shares the diverse cultural makeup of the city. Readers who enjoy a strong sense of place in the novel will appreciate this".

West is an Otago freelance journalist, novelist, and playwright who lives on a farm near Mosgiel, a small township just south of Dunedin. Her novels are thrilling tales for young adults. Her debut, Thieves, was shortlisted for the New Zealand Post Book Awards for Children & Young Adults, and spawned an acclaimed trilogy.

While her first three books were thrillers set in a sci-fi world (the second book was also a finalist for the Sir Julius Vogel Awards from New Zealand's Science Fiction & Fantasy Association), West's fourth novel was a crime thriller that drew on her own love for and experiences of rural life. Night Vision, an engaging tale starring an exceptional girl, was published in 2014 and went on to win both the Young Adult Fiction Award at the 2015 LIANZA Children's Book Awards, and the YA Children's Choice Award at the 2015 New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults.

Young Viola was born with rare genetic condition Xeroderma Pigmentosum, making her at dangerous risk from anything that emits ultraviolet light, including the sun. So she's a 'moon child', and while her parents sleep she explores the family sheep farm and surrounding forest by night, sharing the natural world with the moreporks, possums, and other nocturnal creatures prowling the darkness. One night, she witnesses a vicious crime, and sees the perpetrator bury a sack of money. With her parents in danger of losing their farm, Viola decides to take the money to help her family, drip-feeding it to them over time. While the Police are looking in the wrong direction, Viola finds herself in the criminal's crosshairs after a newspaper interview about her and her condition tips off the local drug dealer as to just who might have taken his money.

Night Vision would be a truly superb mystery for adolescent readers, and could still be greatly enjoyed by older teens and adults. I liked it a lot, even if the young adult-targeted plotline was more straightforward than the adult crime I usually read. Viola is a terrific narrator, a unique and engaging girl who draws us into her perspective on the world. West brings the Otago rural setting to life, on the farm and in the forest. The nocturnal perspective on the local bush, the dual serenity and danger of nature, was well evoked and created an atmospheric backdrop to an intriguing tale.

Craig Sisterson is a lapsed lawyer who writes features for leading magazines and newspapers in several countries. He has interviewed more than 180 crime writers, discussed crime writing onstage at festivals in Europe and Australasia, on national radio, is a judge of the McIlvanney Prize, and is the Judging Convenor of the Ngaio Marsh Awards. You can follow him on Twitter: @craigsisterson

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