Saturday, June 7, 2014

Ngaio Marsh Award: looking back on how it all began...

Wow... It's a little surreal to think that this year, 2014, is the fifth instalment of the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel, New Zealand's indigenous prize for crime, mystery, and thriller fiction. An award that gestated as several conversations with a few authors, reviewers, publishers, and other booklovers over a period of months back in 2009-2010, after I'd wondered aloud (several times) why New Zealand seemed to be the only English-speaking country - other than Belize, perhaps - that didn't have a crime writing award?

Sure, we were a smaller country, smaller population, and smaller market, than the likes of the UK, USA, Canada, and Australia, but other small countries had crime fiction awards. And, more to the point, we did have awards for literary/general fiction, romance fiction, sci-fi and fantasy fiction, and more in New Zealand. So why not crime?

To me, it was a gaping hole, especially for a country that had historically produced crime fiction that garnered acclaim on the world stage. We'd even been the home of one of the four Queens of Crime in the Golden Age of Detective Fiction: Dame Ngaio Marsh. So, as these things often happen, after some thinking and talking, and more thinking and talking, it was time to take action. And the Ngaio Marsh Award was born, in 2010.

I've shared parts of the story of the Award's inception over the years, in various interviews, as well as my own blog posts and articles. Like many things in life, there was not one inciting incident, but instead several strands, coincidences, and other things all coming together over time. Like a whole lot of twigs coming from different places, gradually stoking a fire you don't even know you're building, until it sparks into life.

You could in some ways trace the Award's creation to a discussion I had with terrific Canadian author William Deverell (read my piece on him here), walking along the streets one Vancouver Spring evening in April 2008, after a Vancouver Library event where the Arthur Ellis Award finalists had been announced (Canada's crime writing awards). I'd only gone to the event as I'd randomly seen a flyer while wandering around the city that day, had no plans that evening and was happy for a 'cruisy' night after thousands of miles of travelling and plentiful adventures the past few months. The event and talking to the likes of Mark Zuehlke and Deverell got me thinking about celebrating crime writing outside of the UK and USA, and wondering why there hadn't seemed to have been an awful lot of crime writing in our country lately, when we had great writers in other genres, page and screen. (Note: in one of those strange but lovely 'life' coincidences, author Lou Allin was also at that event - she later independently became one our judges for 2010-2012, as Vice-President of Crime Writers Canada - we later realised we'd oh-so-briefly met in person back then).

Another twig: I randomly picked up two crime novels from the recently returned shelf at the Papatoetoe Library in October 2008 while waiting to hear back about a potential new job, having just arrived back in New Zealand following a yearlong round-the-world trip. A journey where I'd reconnected with my lifelong love of reading while on 24-hour bus rides in South America, then airports, trains, ferries, and hostels around the Americas and Europe. The two books that somehow caught my eye that day, when I hadn't even originally intended to go to the library? Vanda Symon's THE RINGMASTER and Paul Cleave's CEMETERY LAKE. After reading both, I realised there was high-quality crime fiction - as good as what I'd been reading from overseas authors - from contemporary New Zealand writers. It was an eye-opening moment for me, and in hindsight got the old cognitive cogs whirring.

Left: CEMETERY LAKE by Paul Cleave, the first of a one-two punch with Vanda Symon's THE RINGMASTER that got me rethinking modern New Zealand crime writing, which until then I'd really thought of as Paul Thomas's 90s Ihaka novels, the noir tales of Chad Taylor, and a couple of one-offs from the likes of Simon Snow, Nigel Latta, and Michael Laws.

Reading those two books lead to my first-ever published crime fiction reviews, when a legal text review for our magazine, NZLawyer (I got the job) didn't come in on time. Our Managing Editor, Darise Bennington, asked if I'd read anything lately I could review to fill the space. So unknowingly (to both of us at the time), Darise threw another twig on the small but growing fire. Unfortunately that review that kickstarted so much for me in the crime fiction world is no longer online - I might have to dig it out and republish it here sometime.

We got some lovely feedback, and it seemed the NZLawyer readers liked the local crime fiction reviews, so in 2009 we included a handful more, such as Lindy Kelly's equestrian-themed thriller BOLD BLOOD then Alix Bosco's legal thriller CUT & RUN. By then I'd started reviewing for other publications, and interviewing authors (a feature on Kelly for NZ Horse & Pony and one on Neil Cross for Good Reading in Australia, were the first) as part of the freelance writing I did to amuse and stretch myself away from my full-time legal writing job (eg sports, travel, feature interviews, reviews).

Then came the launch of this blog in August 2009, basically inspired by the fact I felt there wasn't much information out there about Kiwi crime writing (judging by my research for articles), what was out there was scattered, most authors didn't then have websites, and I had some cool new material from interviews or contacts that I couldn't fit in the feature article word counts. So maybe there was something worth sharing? By then I was already writing non-stop for work and for freelancing, so what was a few more articles/posts per week? How the heck did I fit it all in? In hindsight, I don't actually know... Well, it was good to keep busy and out of mischief since my terrific then-girlfriend had moved overseas. So yeah, maybe she gets a credit in this whole thing too. And hey, it's fun to work hard doing doing stuff you enjoy...

So even though it was never a plan, looking back, the path to the creation of the Ngaio Marsh Award seems to have some kind of random logic, and ongoing momentum that built to the point I felt something had to be done. Although I have received plenty of (too much, perhaps) credit for its creation, there were so many people who played a part along the way, knowingly and not. From random discussions to focused advice, to those who came on board and offered their time and expertise to help, and for that I will forever be grateful.

Too many to name, perhaps, but as the fire sparked and started to grow, these guys were 'big logs' that made it roar: the amazing judges from around the world, crime fiction lovers all, that volunteered their time and insight; so many in the books industry who offered supportive advice or naysaying motivation; John Dacres-Manning, Dame Ngaio's closest living relative, for giving his blessing for us to use her name; artist Gina Ferguson for coming up with an amazing trophy based on a brainstorming session, some scattered ideas, and a bad sketch of mine; the Christchurch Writers Festival for being so enthusiastic and supportive in the Award's inaugural year (even after the first earthquakes lead to the cancellation of the 2010 festival), and ever since; and local media who embraced the Award then local crime writing itself much more than I expected, initially. To name a few.

Guy Somerset wrote a great piece for the New Zealand Listener on crime writing in New Zealand and the creation of the Award. And yes, that is me looking semi-noirish in the photo - a rare unsmiling pic of me; I thought I should listen to the photographer's artistic intentions since it was my first-ever photoshoot. Then Sunday Star-Times Books Editor Mark Broatch also took a closer look at New Zealand crime writing in a great feature, "It's a crime wave" (read online here).

There was no doubt that New Zealand crime fiction was on the rise, but many did wonder at the time if the Ngaio Marsh Award would be sustainable. Would there be enough quality books coming out each year to make an annual award for New Zealand crime, mystery, and thriller fiction viable. Was it a rising tide, or a bubble that would burst? I wasn't even sure myself, though I was confident that with the likes of inaugural finalists Neil Cross, Vanda Symon, and the pseudonymed Alix Bosco, along with Kelly, Paul Cleave (who'd had international acclaim and mega sales in Europe), Paddy Richardson, and emerging authors such as Ben Sanders, around, that at least there would be some great books to read and consider for the next couple of years at least. So we'd go from there...

Five years on, we have undoubtedly our strongest and deepest, most diverse 'long list' ever (the eight books that are being considered by the international judging panel right now). And there were other well-written and enjoyable Kiwi crime thrillers that came out last year that haven't made it to that stage. That level of depth, quality, and diversity is pretty cool - especially when you consider that it's a year in which none of those outstanding inaugural finalists (Bosco won in 2010 and was a finalist in 2011, Cross was a finalist in 2010, 2011 and won the Award in 2012, and Symon has been a three-time finalist) is in the running, as none produced a crime novel in 2013. So it seems for now the bubble has not burst, and the tide rises...

The New Zealand media have been very supportive of this Award, for which I'm very grateful. It's been a labour of love, a wee hobby of mine, rather than some well-oiled machine. I'm a bit of an outlier in the books world, just doing my own thing, which works terrifically well in some ways, and not so much in others, I know.

Along with the Listener and Sunday Star-Times articles, in the early days there were features in the Herald on Sunday, The Press, and interviews and mentions on Radio New Zealand, amongst many others.

Above: Me in late 2010 with the Award, along with some books in the running for the 2011 Award - yep, I was already planning ahead. Photo Credit: Herald on Sunday

You can read my interview in the Herald on Sunday, around the time of the first award, here.

Since the launch of the Award, it seems things have improved for New Zealand crime fiction, overall, I think. It seems to be featured more in the review pages here and abroad, appearing more regularly on the local bestseller list, festivals regularly include New Zealand crime writers on their programmes now, new authors are emerging in the genre, and some authors are winning or becoming finalists for overseas awards too. Crime is often the most popular genre for library loans, and book sales, in New Zealand - though it would still be nice to see New Zealand readers buying more New Zealand crime fiction.

My own life has changed a lot since five years ago, but my passion for crime fiction remains. As I say in my wee spiel for this blog, it's one of my many passions. It's funny to me how those in the books world see me in a certain way, because that's all they know. Where other friends in other areas of my life sometimes have no idea of this part of my life (when they do find out, it's amazing how many of them are actually crime fiction fans themselves - I've ended up recommending a lot of great books and authors over the years!). It does feel good to be involved, even in a periphery, slightly outsider-ish way, with something I love, though. I've been a super-keen reader since growing up in the small town of Richmond. You can trace my interest in crime fiction to the Hardy Boys books, along with Poirot and Sherlock Holmes. Part of a terrific childhood filled with sports, books, the outdoors, and great friends and family who fuelled in me a curiosity about the world and a passion for life. Sorry, side-tracking here a little. I guess it's just a time of reflection, and gratitude.

Looking ahead now, I'm really excited to see who will take home the fifth instalment of the Ngaio Marsh Award at the upcoming WORD Christchurch festival in late August, and I'll be keeping you all up to date with local and international crime fiction happenings and thoughts right here on Crime Watch (which will be undergoing a revamp at some point in the future). In the meantime, it would be terrific if you'd be so kind to 'like' the Award's Facebook page, as we'll be making several announcements over the coming weeks, and you'll have the chance to win some cool prizes.

Thanks so much for all your comments and support over the years. I am truly grateful.

Kia kaha


  1. Many thanks Craig. You've lifted the profile of NZ crime writing in a huge way. Authors like Michael Connelly, Jeffery Deaver, Peter Temple, have inspired my writing but I'm enjoying the work of NZ crime authors just as much these days.

  2. Keep it going, Craig! You've been a huge force for good in NZ crime writing (as well as many other spheres in your multi-faceted life.) Your encouragement in the early years of my writing career made a big difference in keeping me going over the bumps and hurdles. Without it I doubt I'd now be finishing my sixth novel - even though I've now strayed towards post-apocalyptic fiction rather than cosy mysteries. Thanks, and carry on!

  3. Craig: Thanks for a fascinating article. I am glad you chose to chronicle the background to the Award. I think too often the history for an event or award is not written early enough and is hard to look back and remember what happened.

    Do I detect a bit of personal sadness in the post? I hope your life is going well and the move to Sydney proves positive. I have been to Sydney but once and hope to go again.

    Best wishes.