Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Forgotten Kiwi crime and thriller books...

Kia Ora everyone. I've been doing a fair bit of research recently about New Zealand crime and thriller writers, past and present - and discovering to my pleasant surprise that there have actually been far more over the years than I first imagined.

Although at times it can seem like there was Ngaio Marsh, and then basically no-one until a bit of a mini-surge in the mid to late 1990s and early 2000s (with Paul Thomas, Chad Taylor, and a couple of one-off books from others), and then a hiatus until recent years when Joan Druett, Paul Cleave, Vanda Symon, Andrea Jutson, and Michael Green have all put out multiple crime/thriller titles, in fact there are many more hidden Kiwi crime and thriller gems out there.

As you'll notice from the increasing size of the sidebar on Kiwi crime/thriller writers, I've been discovering more and more all the time - and somewhat embarassingly for a booklover like me, there are even some who put out several crime fiction titles, published in NZ and overseas, that I'd never heard of, until now. If a fan like me never really heard about them, I guess that just underlines some of the problems Kiwi writers have faced (and still do) in terms of publicity and larger numbers of potential readers, both local and international, hearing about their work (and choosing to give it a go).

So, intrigued by some of the gems I have uncovered, moving forward I will be adding a new semi-regular series on reviews of out of print and hard to find Kiwi crime and thriller books, looking at some of the works these somewhat-forgotten writers published (that can be found in online second hand stores and libraries, for those interested).

I have managed to get my hands on five such books so far, and have more on the way (ordered from online second-hand dealers) - four of those first out of print or hard to find books that I will eventually review on this blog are set out below...

Freda Bream is a classic example of a forgotten or overlooked Kiwi crime writer - during her retirement this ex-schoolteacher wrote 13 mystery novels set in New Zealand (over a 15 year period in the 1980s and 1990s, starting with her first at age 64). Her mysteries were even published in the UK (by Robert Hale Books), and yet I doubt many readers nowadays would know about her, which seems a real shame.

I have recently got my hands on a nice copy of ISLAND OF FEAR (1982), her debut mystery novel set on Waiheke Island, one of Auckland's gulf islands. New island arrival, Judy Marling, has been lent a cottage there in the hope that the leisurely atmosphere will help her convalescence from an unexplained illness. She lives in fear that she'll be pursued to the island by her drug-smuggling ex. Then another woman, Helen Stokes, unexpectedly arrives to share the cottage with her. Nevertheless at first all is peaceful and relaxing. The neighbours are friendly, the sun shines, and the eccentric vicar drops in for a chat and a sherry. But Judy has a strange feeling that she has met him before. Then things begin to go dreadfully wrong: mysterious deaths and attacks occur, and before long Judy is fearing for her life.The islanders realise there must be a killer in their midst.

A 1991 political thriller by Michael Wall, MUSEUM STREET received some good reviews on its release. Bryce Courtney (THE POWER OF ONE, APRIL FOOL'S DAY) said: "dirty tricks writing at it's best, Wall is as explosive and spontaneous as a Molotov cocktail".

The blurb on the back says: "The sudden death of New Zealand Prime Minister Norman Kirk triggers a series of extraordinary events in the life of Wellington journalist Erin Page. Secret assignations and mysterious phone calls coincide with the expulsion of Russian diplomats, a bizarre spy trial involving economist Dr Bill Sutch, and allegations of homosexual activity levelled at senior politicans. Erin's relentless search for the truth drags her into a labyrinth of intrigue, reaching back to the most brutal episodes of World War II and forward into a complex web of international espionage..."

Could be an exciting read.

Carol Dawber is a Dunedin-based writer, and the owner of a small publishing company, River Press. For many years she lived in the Top of the South Island of New Zealand (where I am from), so I am even more miffed that I'd never really heard of her - especially as the trilogy of mystery novels she wrote in quick succession in the early-mid 1990s (while I was devouring Agatha Christie at high school) are set in the national parks and surrounding areas near where I grew up.

The first novel in the mystery trilogy is BACKTRACK (1992), which involves a death in the forest that "turns strangers into suspects". Bad weather isolates both the police and groups of trampers (hikers, for you overseas readers) in the lush native bush of the Heaphy Track, before the story takes the reader from some of NZ's finest scenery into its cities and small towns. The blurb says: "The sounds and smells of the bush and its closely observed inhabitants are almost as strongly drawn as the characters in this lively novel of suspense".

I'm looking forward to finding out... I understand you may still possibly be able to get copies of this trilogy from River Press (who have a few remaining).

Lifelong medical practitioner Selwyn Carson turned his hand to a couple of local thrillers, and I've managed to get my hands on PRESCRIPTION FOR DANGER (1995), his debut. This book involves a hard-working GP and family man in Christchurch stumbling into a dark, dangerous world of drug trafficking and gang war, and must fight for his life.

Unfortunately, it seems his authorial career was kiboshed by his wife after the second thriller - after some local Christchurch readers claimed to recognise themselves as characters in his books, Carson's wife vetoed a third on the grounds that she had to live in Christchurch.

So there you go. What do you think - is it worth reviewing books that are now longer readily for sale new? What are some of your favourite crime, mysteries and thrillers that are now out of print and hard to find - the forgotten gems of the modern publishing world? Are some out of print or hard to find books as good (or better) than many still readily-available titles?

Thoughts and comments very welcome.


  1. You have been busy tracking gems. I think it's great they've had another brief moment in the sun on your blog.

  2. I also like the way you have taken on the role of ambassador for New Zealand crime. Keep up the good work!

  3. I think it's a great idea. While they may be out of print, it's still possible to find many of them on-line. My favorite is

    I have in the past just searched on an author's name and discovered titles I didn't know existed.
    So, used copies may still be available.