Ngaio Marsh Awards founder Craig Sisterson takes a look at some of the new crime writers who have joined our #yeahnoir ranks in the past couple of years
Last week, Simon Wyatt released his first novel, The Student Body, an intriguing tale of a newly promoted detective sergeant looking to solve the puzzling murder of a teenage girl at a school camp near Piha. There’s a real ring of authenticity to this whodunit, both in terms of its unique location (the blend of rugged bushland and urban sprawl in West Auckland) and the local flavour of the police procedure. Readers are taken beyond presumptions fostered by television crime dramas. Unsurprising, really, since Wyatt is a former West Auckland detective himself, who turned to crime writing while slowly recuperating from the crippling effects of Guillain-Barré Syndrome, which struck him down in his late 20s.
The Student Body is a book well worth grabbing for crime fans, and yet another plank of evidence in the case for New Zealand being a land packed with talented crime writers.
Candidly, when the Ngaio Marsh Awards were established back in 2010, there were real concerns that there might not be enough quality crime novels from Kiwi authors, moving forward, for the Awards to be sustainable beyond the first couple of years. Were we launching at the high point for New Zealand crime writing, rather than a growing wave?
With the Awards now entering their eighth year, it’s clear those fears were unfounded. This year’s Ngaios (for 2015 books) saw a record 29 entries, with only two from prior finalists. The number of potential entrants for next year’s awards has already surpassed that mark.
Importantly, plenty of new talent has joined the Kiwi crime spree. In the last two and a half years alone, three dozen new faces have joined ‘the usual suspects’. Several acclaimed authors from other genres (historical fiction, sci-fi & fantasy, romance, contemporary and literary fiction), have turned their talented pens towards tales of murder, mystery, and mayhem. Julie Thomas’s Blood, Wine & Chocolate became a #1 bestseller, and Tina Shaw (The Children’s Pond), Tanya Moir (The Legend of Winstone Blackhat), Adam Christopher (Made to Kill), and Barbara Ewing (The Petticoat Men) have all been Ngaio finalists.
Even more importantly, we’ve seen around 30 first-time authors bolster our crime ranks, broadening and deepening the local genre, and providing their own twists. At this year’s WORD Christchurch Writers and Readers Festival, four outstanding, diverse books were honoured as finalists for the inaugural Ngaio Marsh Award for Best First Novel.
John Daniell’s The Fixer is an engaging thriller that takes us deep into the locker rooms and off-field pressures of top-level professional sport. Jen Shieff’s The Gentlemen’s Club transports readers to the seamy backstreets and shadowy power-plays in post-war Auckland. Twister by Jane Woodham blends outstanding character studies with a Dunedin police investigation into abduction and murder. Winner Ray Berard peels back the layers on “the New Zealand tourists don’t see” with Inside the Black Horse, a thrilling novel that delves into the impact of a Rotorua armed robbery on the lives of everyone involved.
That’s just the tip of the bloodstained ice-pick, when it comes to new #yeahnoir voices. So as we hit the spookiest time of the year, here’s a closer look at 13 dark and deadly debuts.
The Alo Release by Geoffrey Robert
What if something widely touted to save millions of people might be a scam, or even worse? Longtime Kiwi journalist Robert takes readers on an entertaining helter-skelter ride with this high concept eco-thriller that fair screams for screen adaptation.
Nine days before the global release of a ‘miracle’ genetically modified seed coating set to make starvation history, the IT advisor for an environmental organisation in Los Angeles gets a cryptic email from an old friend who works for the seed corporation. Alarms bells start ringing, behind closed doors, and a deadly manhunt ensues as a ‘by any means’ corporate fixer follows a trio of environmentalists to New Zealand in an effort to silence them.
Robert conjures a propulsive narrative mixing personal and global issues, set against a well-evoked backdrop of rural New Zealand, full of quirky and memorable characters. The Alo Release is a promising debut that can get the pulse racing, and the mind whirring.
Deception Island by Brynn Kelly
Several popular, bestselling US crime writers, including Tess Gerritsen, Tami Hoag, Sandra Brown, and Lisa Gardner, began their book-writing careers in the world of romantic suspense, straddling the border between the world’s two most popular literary genres.
Award-winning Kiwi journalist Kelly, who has previously written bestselling non-fiction books under a different name, dips her fiction-writing toe into that same pool with this gripping tale of kidnapping, blackmail, and betrayal. Former French Foreign Legionnaire Rafe Angelito is a bad guy turned good who must return to his dark past in order to save his son. The price? Kidnap a US senator’s daughter. Except the daughter isn’t who she appears to be.
Deception Island is a very promising debut: a high octane romantic thriller that leans more strongly to action and thrills than romance (yay say the crime fans), set in exotic locations, with two strong, flawed leads battling troubled pasts and a dangerous present.
The Devil’s Wire by Deborah Rogers
Psychological thrillers, particularly female-centric domestic noir, are riding high as a sub-genre in the crime fiction world at the moment, and Rogers squarely hits the target with this tense, discomforting, and fiendishly twisting tale of suburban lives torn asunder.
Jennifer is an everywoman, a working mother and wife who seems to have a good life, even if she’s surviving rather than thriving. Her strange neighbour Lenise seems to want Jennifer’s friendship, despite a tragic accident early in the book, but that friendship comes at a price. Is Lenise obsessed? Is she lying with the stories she tells about Jennifer’s husband Hank?
Christchurch author Rogers delivers a claustrophobic tale of secrets and obsessions, luring the reader down the rabbit hole into a dangerous world that, frighteningly, could exist behind the doors on any suburban street. Just like the original Halloween film showed, the scariest things can often be the ones that hit closest to home, where we should feel safe.
The Hour of the Grey Wolf by Christodoulos Moisa
Acclaimed Whanganui poet and painter Moisa takes readers on an exciting journey influenced by his roots with this compelling literary page-turner set against the political unrest of 1970s Cyprus. Kiwi journalist Steve Carpenter heads to Cyprus – his parents’ homeland - to recover from an injury suffered in Vietnam, only to discover that the embattled island may be even more dangerous than the jungles of Southeast Asia.
Carpenter becomes embroiled in a murder mystery in his parents’ peasant village, at a time when the country as a whole is teetering towards Civil War. The CIA and Greek powerbrokers are gunning for Archbishop Makarios, the newly elected president of the island nation. Assassination attempts seem inevitable. Despite his heritage, Carpenter is viewed as an outsider, and must battle village mistrust to discover the truth.
Moisa delivers a unique and atmospheric whodunit that is richly textured with history, philosophy, and labyrinthine Mediterranean politics. Pleasingly, it’s the first in a series.
The Ice Shroud by Gordon Ell
After more than a quarter of a century photographing and writing about New Zealand flora and fauna, Ell has utilised his love of Kiwi nature to flavour this impressive debut mystery.
Set among the rugged landscapes and tourist hot-spots of the Southern Lakes region, The Ice Shroud introduces Detective Sergeant Malcolm Buchan, the newly appointed head of the local CIB, who almost immediately comes a cropper when he recognises the body of a woman extracted from the icy clutches of a river near Queenstown. For personal reasons, Buchan keeps his knowledge from his colleagues, but he’s not the only one keeping secrets.
As the investigation begins to intersect with some very powerful locals, Buchan and his team are forced to find creative ways to find the truth. But can Buchan survive the outcome? Unsurprisingly, Ell does a great job bringing the natural world of the Southern Lakes to life, but equally he impresses with his plotting and characterisation in this very engaging debut.
The Jaded Kiwi by Nick Spill
Given the author’s background, it’s fitting that this debut crime novel is a rollicking, madcap tale full of colourful characters. Spill grew up in 1960-1970s New Zealand and curated exhibitions at the National Gallery in Wellington before heading overseas, where he’s worked as a bodyguard and is now chief investigator for a government agency in Florida.
It’s summer in Auckland, 1976. Marijuana is in short supply. Two couples – a physicist and gynaecologist, and a violinist and actress – meet in a pub, help a Maori leader evade police, and find themselves caught up in the growing war on drugs and organised crime. It’s as crazy and fun as it sounds. Spill delivers the kind of crime tale that would appeal to fans of caper stories like Oceans’ Eleven and Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels. Dark crime mixed with humour, packed with craziness yet still flows and fits together. This is an enjoyable if slightly over-the-top treat that never takes itself too seriously, and is very Kiwi.
A Madras Miasma by Brian Stoddart
Globe-trotting Queenstown academic and author Stoddart shifts time and place with this first instalment in his very intriguing Superintendent Le Fanu series. The setting is 1920s India, a nation peering towards the horizon of independence from Great Britain.
Le Fanu, a man hiding his own secrets, investigates the grisly murder of a respectable young British girl, whose body is discovered in a canal, her veins full of morphine. Le Fanu, who fought in the Middle East in the Great War, finds his investigation hampered by Raj politics, and the messy overlaps between (and within) the British ex-pat and local communities.
Stoddart brings a vibrant sense of place and real authenticity to his Le Fanu mysteries, informing as well as entertaining the reader, without slowing the pace. A book, and series, that should appeal to fans of historical fiction as well as crime fiction, full of interesting characters living in very interesting times.
A Moment’s Silence by Christopher Abbey
This first effort from a Palmerston North quantity surveyor is a gritty thriller that sees a 50-year-old man’s desire for middle-aged adventure get him much more than he bargained for.
Martyn Percival is an unemployed accountant who decides on a belated OE to the United Kingdom, only to get caught up in a dangerous police operation thanks to a chance sighting while he’s exploring the Cotswolds by tour bus. Paired up with an attractive local police sergeant, he finds himself in the cross-hairs of a renegade IRA operative and serial killer.
After a plot to catch the bomber backfires, Martyn returns to New Zealand. But he’s not alone, and must turn the tables on his stalker if he’s to survive. Abbey takes readers on an exciting journey, powered by sparse prose and good connections to the characters. A middle-aged accountant may seem an unlikely hero, but we’re drawn into Martyn’s tale.
Murder & Matchmaking by Debbie Cowens
The idea of mashing up Jane Austen and Sherlock Holmes could seem anathema to ardent fans of either, but before you howl at the moon, perhaps you should give this devilishly fun read from Wellington author Cowens a try. It’s a deliciously clever page-turner.
In this fresh spin on Austen’s Pride & Prejudice, the young ladies of Hertfordshire have been meeting foul fates, and famous London detective Mr Sherlock Darcy teams up with Miss Elizabeth Bennett to get to the bottom of the deaths. Cowens adroitly juggles the job of paying homage to both Austen’s world and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s most famous character, while providing something fresh and unique. ‘Fun’ is the word that clearly comes to mind. Murder & Matchmaking is a delightful read, full of little touches and nods while also delivering a page-turning story in its own right (although not really a whodunit as such).
Red Herring by Jonothan Cullinane
For a relatively young country, New Zealand has a rich and fascinating history, and first-time author Cullinane delves into that with this thriller set against the 1951 waterfront dispute, our country’s most epic industrial action. For almost half a year workers battled bosses and the government, who brought in the military to man the ports and ensure the flow of cargo.
Against that volatile backdrop, Cullinane crafts a terrific page-turner packed full of murky deeds in a murky time. Jonny Molloy is a war veteran and private eye hired to track down a man who was supposed to be dead, spotted among the striking workers. Searching for the truth, Molloy encounters a world of union politics, dark political agendas, and global anti-Communist hysteria. Ambitious reporter Caitlin O’Carolan is also on the case, for her own reasons, and together the pair begin to uncover a dangerous conspiracy. Things aren’t as simple as workers versus the Establishment, two sides scrabbling for advantage.
Sassafras by Richard Gooch
An adventure-seeking Kiwi bordering on midlife crisis and searching for meaning as well as a good time decides to make a big play by smuggling 2,000 litres of sassafras oil – enough to make 30 million Euros worth of ecstasy – from the mountains of Cambodia to a port town in Myanmar. He falls in love, and has to battle corrupt officials, dodgy partners, soldiers, and other dangers. His best laid plans start to fall apart, especially when an old flame returns.
Tauranga author Gooch, a keen and experienced traveller, apparently wrote much of this debut ‘in country’ in Southeast Asia: Laos, Burma, Thailand, and Cambodia. His love of that part of the world comes through in an exciting tale that is full of action and adventure. This isn’t a whodunit, but a pulsating ‘journey in exotic lands/can our hero survive?’ odyssey. Thrills and spills, a dash of romance, plenty of interesting characters.
Skin of Tattoos by Christina Hoag
New Zealand-born journalist Hoag had a vagabond childhood, worked as a correspondent in Latin America for a decade (filing stories for Time magazine and the New York Times, among others), has written a non-fiction book about gang life, and now lives in Los Angeles.
Hoag brings her vast experience of Hispanic culture, and gang culture, to the fore in her debut literary thriller, Skin of Tattoos, which US critics have praised as ‘the closest you can get to understanding gang life without joining one’. Magdaleno is a Cyco Lokos gang member, recently paroled after a prison stint, determined to go straight. But choices aren’t that easy, especially when it’s tough to find a job or earn the respect of your family.
But just how far will Mags be driven in his desire for respect, and revenge? Hoag delivers a gritty and authentic tale, beautifully written, that illustrates the harsh realities of gang life.
They Call Me Alexandra Gastone by TA MacLagan
Alexandra ‘Lex’ Gladstone is in many ways a typical American teenager: she goes to high school, has a boyfriend, is mulling college applications, and loves her grandfather. But her two eyes of different colours aren’t the only atypical things about Lex. She’s actually a sleeper agent from Olissa, a nation-state battled over by Iran, Russia, the USA, and others. She replaced the real Lex, who died in a car crash, and whose grandfather is in the CIA.
Now with an opportunity to assassinate the pro-US president of Olissa, usher in regime change in her homeland, and pin the blame on her grandfather, Lex is activated by her ruthless handlers. But can she betray the man who’s shown her so much love? Is she really a spy, and killer, at heart, ready to sacrifice everything for ideas drummed into her years ago?
Maclagan crafts a cracker of a YA novel, an action-packed yarn that hooks and intrigues with both its plotline and fascinating heroine.