Friday, June 16, 2017

A wheelchair-bound obsessive, a home-invasion victim, an amnesiac spy: the 2017 Ngaio Marsh Award longlist is full of freshness

The longlist for the 2017 Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel, announced on The Spinoff yesterday, is a decidedly eclectic bunch of books, flush with fresh voices and new blood. 

A self-inflicted, self-described cripple dangling off the edge of a cliff above the raging sea near the bottom of New Zealand, clinging precariously to life after getting too noisy with his dangerous neighbours, probably wasn’t the kind of hero Raymond Chandler ever had in mind.

“Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid,” wrote the cranky king of crime fiction in “The Simple Art of Murder”, an oft-quoted essay for the Atlantic Monthly published a few short weeks after the end of the Second World War.

Seventy-plus years on, the hero of Otago author Finn Bell’s exciting crime debut Dead Lemons is both tarnished, and afraid. And he’s not the only ‘hero’ among this year’s crop of Ngaio Marsh Award longlistees who breaks the classic crime mould. New Zealand authors are unafraid to put their own spin on crime, blending it with other genres, and taking their tales into varied locales and times.

A record number of entries gave the judging panel plenty to ponder, with plenty of new blood joining the local #yeahnoir ranks (credit to Steph Soper of the Book Council for the cool hashtag).

Candidly, it was a tough ask for our judges to narrow down the longlist, with plenty of good local reads that judges liked missing out. While that’s a great situation for the overall health of New Zealand crime writing, it made for some tough calls, differing opinions, and debate.

With such variety on offer (and the fact I’m only personally batting about .500 in terms of correctly picking the winner over the years), I’m not even going to try to play bookie with the contenders.

But let’s take a closer look at who's in the running. If you’re a fan of crime fiction, or just good writing, I’m sure there’s something here that could tickle your fancy.

Dead Lemons by Finn Bell: A man loses his wife, ends up in a wheelchair after a drunken road smash, then moves to a remote cottage in Southland, coin-tossing about ending it all. As he discovers more about his new home, he gets obsessed by the disappearance of a young girl and her father years before. The Ngaios judges praised Dead Lemons as “a highly original debut with a very strong narrative voice” that “threads in interesting themes about recovery and human psychology, and a strong evocation of the rural personalities and fascinating history of the Deep South”.

Pancake Money by Finn Bell: Bobby Ress is a Dunedin detective with a simple life, catching bad guys before going home to his wife and daughter. Until he and partner Pollo Latu are called to the brutal killing of a local priest. When the tortured body of another priest is found, alarm bells start screeching.  “This is top shelf stuff,” said the judges. “It takes a deep dive into the psychological, examining the human capacity for inflicting and enduring pain. The story rises to its ambitions, the Otago setting offers mood aplenty, and there’s a great, profane dynamic between the two detectives.”

Spare Me The Truth by CJ Carver (Bonnie Zaffre): The latest high-octane thriller from Aussie-born ‘half Kiwi’ Carver centres on Dan Forrester, who still struggling to adjust to the gaps in his memory following the death of his son. After a stranger approaches him saying most of what he thinks about his life is a lie, Forrester gets caught up in a conspiracy, alongside a blackmailed woman and a disgraced female cop exiled to the rural backblocks. “A hugely enjoyable, globally minded thriller which takes all sorts of wild leaps – terrorism, pharmaceutical experimentation – and lands soundly,” said the judges.

Red Herring by Jonothan Cullinane (HarperCollins): The second debut to elbow its way onto the longlist is a noir tale set against the bloody confrontations of the 1951 Waterfront dispute. Cullinane blends real-life figures and events into his story of private eye Johnny Molloy and reporter Caitlin O’Carolan delving into a simple case that gets complicated by the powerful forces of the day. Chandler would love this one, as did the judges. “An historical thriller whose cracking dialogue and ceaseless pace makes it feel utterly current; revives a dramatic but largely forgotten moment of New Zealand’s past to brilliant effect.”

The Revelations of Carey Ravine by Debra Daley (Quercus): An historical thriller that takes readers back to the buccaneering days of 1770s London, when the city was flooded with new ideas and money. Carey Ravine is the spirited wife of Oliver Nash, but when her husband draws the ambitious pair into the darker corners of society, and a stranger unearths a troubling secret, Ravine is forced to investigate the truth and confront her own illusions. “An evocative, colourful historical thriller,” said the judges, “that’s a well-written and convincing story of a tenacious heroine who faces down graft and corruption.”

The Three Deaths of Magdalene Lynton by Katherine Hayton: forty years after teenager Magdalene Lynton accidentally drowned in a farm tank, cancer-stricken Paul Worthington confesses to her rape and murder. But neither version rings true to part-Maori detective Ngaire Blakes. As she investigates, it appears Worthington isn’t the only one with a guilty conscience. “A nicely paced, suspenseful study of a cold case investigation,” said the judges, “with an intriguing theme underlying the central plot, and police angst that isn’t overblown. Ngaire Blakes is an interesting central character, and this is an engaging crime tale.”

Presumed Guilty by Mark McGinn (Merlot Publishing): Sasha Stace QC feels done after defending a political sleazebag on a rape charge. But as a High Court judgeship is dangled, her former partner – a journalist who’s been critical of politicians and police – is accused of murdering his wife. The woman he left Sasha to marry. Personal and professional collide as Sasha looks to defend a man whose word she can’t trust. “A captivating and superbly plotted legal thriller,” said the judges. “Not a subgenre produced much in New Zealand, but McGinn deftly balances courtroom drama with interpersonal conflict.”

Marshall’s Law by Ben Sanders (Allen & Unwin): After surviving a hit man and drug thugs while supposedly under witness protection, ex-NYPD undercover cop Marshall Grade is laying low in California. Until his handler is kidnapped, and Grade realises he needs to return to New York if he’s ever to cut ties with his past. “There’s a real zing to Sanders’ writing,” said the judges. “He writes in bone-dry prose, but the marrow is rich. Violence abounds. There’s a terrific filmic quality; you can imagine the Coen brothers or Quentin Tarantino helming a helter-skelter screen adaptation.”

A Straits Settlement by Brian Stoddart (Crime Wave Press): in this third in the Queenstown author’s series set in 1920s India, Le Fanu has been promoted to Inspector-General of Police. Eschewing the boring admin of his new role, he investigates a disappearance and a murder, drawing him into the worlds of indentured labour and antiquities theft. “Stoddart is a marvellous prose stylist with an impressive command of dialogue, in particular,” said the judges. “He uses setting superbly, captures the political absurdities of the place and time, and subtly foreshadows the loss of a colonial grip in the region.”

The Last Time We Spoke by Fiona Sussman (Allison & Busby): Carla Reid has a nice life on her family farm, with a son cresting into adulthood. Then her world collides with Ben Toroa, an illiterate teen caught in gang life. A brutal act, headline fodder, but what happens long after the news cycle moves on? “This is a powerful, evocative novel that examines the ongoing impact of violent crime for all involved,” said the judge. “It’s confronting, but beautifully written. A tale packed with a heart-wrenchingly authentic array of characters, that stays with you long after you reach the final page.”

The international judging panel of Ayo Onatade (UK), Greg Fleming (New Zealand), Janet Rudolph (United States), Karen Chisholm (Australia), Paddy Richardson (New Zealand), Stephanie Jones (New Zealand), and Yrsa Sigurdardottir (Iceland), are currently considering the longlist. 

The finalists will be announced in August, along with the finalists for the Best First Novel and Best Non Fiction categories. The finalists will be celebrated and the winners announced at a WORD Christchurch event in October. 

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