Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Kiwi Author skewers Dame Ngaio?

As I've noted before here on Crime Watch, including with my 'Kiwi crime bookshelves' photo back in July (see right), I've found myself collecting a lot of out of print and hard to find Kiwi crime, mystery and thriller titles over the past year or so. There have been some terrific finds in various online and 'real' secondhand bookstores etc - and since July I've probably added another 20-25 books, as well as found out about several others that could be added (if or when I can get my hands on them). Along with a strong present and a (hopefully) very bright future, New Zealand crime fiction has a much richer and more varied history than most people realise.

Recently I headed down to Nelson (my hometown) for a bit of a break, and browsed a couple of cool secondhand bookstores while I was there. There are a handful of out of print Kiwi crime books and authors that I've been trying to find copies of for quite a while, so I'm always looking out for them, along with any other books that fall within the genre that I might stumble upon. At one store I ended up walking out with about 8-10 such 'forgotten' Kiwi crime novels, including three I'd been trying to find for ages - one of which was BLUE BLOOD by Stevan Eldred-Grigg.

Eldred-Grigg isn't someone most New Zealanders would associate with crime fiction - he's an historian and author who writes in a eclectic variety of 'genres' and styles. When I was at high school we had to read ORACLES AND MIRACLES, his first novel. It's a story about two girls "living in a world of dreams while growing up in poverty" in historic Christchurch. I remember thinking it was okay, but not that great - but in fairness that was probably more to do with being a high school student who read a lot, and so was primed to be a little against the 'old, boring stuff' that the teachers 'forced' on us. I do remember enjoying the novel more than I thought I would (I thought it was okay, whereas most of my classmates hated it), and I'd probably appreciate a lot more about it if I read it now.

Eldred-Grigg's most recent book is the acclaimed non-fiction work DIGGERS, HATTERS, AND WHORES, a very lively account of the gold rushes from the 1850s to the 1870s which were "the biggest single event in the history of colonial New Zealand".

Back in 1997 though, Eldred-Grigg wrote his one and only 'crime novel', a book that stirred a little controversy at the time. BLUE BLOOD is touted as a "parody, and a darkly comic deconstruction, of the classic interwar crime novel" - I'd stumbled across a reference to it online several months ago, and had been looking out for a copy ever since, so was stoked to discover one in the secondhand bookstore on Hardy Street in Nelson (opposite Lone Star).

BLUE BLOOD is set in 1929, and the back cover blurb reads as follows:

"Summer, 1929. Three young women are rocketing across the hot Canterbury Plains in a fast roadster: smoking, drinking - laughing. But soon all this is to change. In a plot worthy of a Ngaio Marsh fiction, lives are about to be shattered by shafts of jealousy, madness and revenge.

The young Ngaio herself, seated at breakfast a few weeks later in the family bungalow on Cashmere, bites into a slice of toast and sight with irritation as her mother rustles the newspaper and comments on page one's shocking story. Two young local women, severely mutilated, pots of blue paint spilled on the bodies...

Stevan Eldred-Grigg's brilliant novel is a tough tale about a woman at the turning point of her creative and emotional life. It is also an enquiry - both mischievious and disturbing - into the psychopathology of a murder which might affect even the author herself."

It certainly sounds intriguing. On its release there was some media debate about whether or not the novel "cruelly defames... a cultural icon of New Zealand". Auckland journalist and reviewer Claudia Marquis called it "an enjoyable hour or two of bitchy pleasure". At least Dame Ngaio was being recognised as a cultural icon, I guess. In some ways we seem to have forgotten her a little now - at least in the wider public consciousness - although hopefully that is changing.

So I'm very much looking forward to trying BLUE BLOOD for myself, both to see Eldred-Grigg turn his hand to crime fiction (parody or not), and to form my own opinion on the (now largely-forgotten, like the book) controversy.

Have any of you read (or even heard of) this hard-to-find piece of New Zealand crime fiction history? What do you think of crime novels that incorporate fictionalised versions of real characters? Do you like scouring secondhand bookstores? What are some of the coolest books you've found in secondhand stores? Please share your thoughts and comments.


  1. Craig - I have to admit, I hadn't heard of this one before, but it does sound awfully intriguing!! No wonder you were on the lookout for it! I'm going to be very interested in finding out what you think of it once you've read it.

  2. Don't feel bad Margot, most Kiwis will have never heard of it either.

    I imagine you're also a bit of a fan of secondhand bookstores? What sort of gems have you found over the years?

  3. Craig,

    As can be expected, I hadn't heard of the novel or the author.

    I don't care for the practice of turning real people into fictionalized detectives. I have tried several of them and found them uninteresting. The character is poorly developed: if the author didn't keep reminding me that the "detective" is a famous person, I would forget it. The plots are simplistic and predictable.

    My guess is that if the "detective" did not happen to be "Queen Elizabeth I" or "Jane Austen" or "Charles Dickens," it probably couldn't get published.

    At least, that's my opinions of the ones I've read and suspect it's true of the ones I haven't.

  4. I found a copy of this in the wonderful Regent 24 Hour Book Sale, but haven't had a chance to read it yet. I'm intrigued to see how it portrays our Ngaio.