Sir James McNeish was a well-known novelist, biographer and playwright. He received critical attention in New Zealand and overseas; many of his works have appeared in London and New York. His novels include Mackenzie (1970) and Lovelock (1986), nominated for the 1986 Booker Prize. His non-fiction encompasses social history, memoir, and psychological studies, in works such as The Mask of Sanity: the Bain Murders (1997), and Dance of the Peacocks: New Zealanders in Exile in the Time of Hitler and Mao Tse-tung (2003) which has become a standard work in the literature of expatriatism.
Photo Credit: © Bruce Foster
Primary publisher: Penguin Random House, Steele Roberts, Quartet Books (UK)
James McNeish has continued to produce literary works to critical acclaim. McNeish was the 1973 recipient of the Meridian Energy Katherine Mansfield Memorial Fellowship, now known as the Katherine Mansfield Menton Fellowship. One of New Zealand's most long-standing and prestigious literary awards, the fellowship is offered annually to enable a New Zealand writer to work in Menton, France. He was also the 1983 Writer in Residence to Berlin under the DAAD Kunstlerprogram, and was selected for the 1999 British National Library Research Fellowship.
Not mentioned in McNeish's Oxford Companion entry are three plays: The Mouse Man (1975), Eighteen Ninety-Five (1975) and Thursday Bloody Thursday (1998). He has produced further literary works, including Conversations in Israel (Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1980); Joy (Hodder and Stoughton, 1982); Walking on my Feet: A.R.D. Fairburn, 1904-1957: a Kind of Biography (Collins, 1983); Ahnungslos in Berlin, also published as The Man from Nowhere & Other Prose (Godwit, 1991); My Name is Paradiso (David Ling, 1995); and Mr Halliday and the Circus Master (David Ling, 1996). In 1998 he published An Albatross Too Many (David Ling, 1998), a sequel to his memoir As For the Godwits.
Dance of the Peacocks (Penguin, 2003) is the story of five New Zealanders who went to Oxford in the 1930s, encountered war and revolution, and found they could not return home in a time of political ferment and social upheaval. "Dance of the Peacocks: New Zealanders at large in the time of Hitler and Mao Tse-Tung" was on show in the National Library Gallery, Wellington in 2003-2004.
The Sixth Man: the extraordinary life of Paddy Costello (Penguin, 2007) is a biography of New Zealand's 'most brilliant linguist and ablest foreign envoy'. The title derives from Dance of the Peacocks where Costello appears as a sixth figure. Francis Beckett for The Guardian described The Sixth Man as a 'thoughtful, intelligent, very readable biography of a man whom it would have been exciting to know'.
Lovelock: A Novel (Penguin, 2009) is the fifth printing of this work, and is an expanded edition of the New Zealand classic which first appeared in London in 1986. The new edition is published together with the author's "Berlin Diary", McNeish's 1983 journal written while researching the novel, and an afterword which contains a sobering commentary on Lovelock's death. A reviewer for The Times said of Lovelock, 'James McNeish has injected a little art into the arid world of sports writing ... A marvellous crux of fiction and reality’. The 1986 edition of the biography was nominated for the 1986 Booker Prize.
McNeish was selected for the 2009 Creative New Zealand Berlin Writers' Residency.
The Crime of Huey Dunstan (Random House, 2010) was described by David Hill for NZ Herald as 'a story which hinges on dramatic, provocative issues of recovered memory. As usual, McNeish doesn't hesitate to buck current trends. Also as usual, he's produced a thoughtful story in which you watch a clear, cultivated mind at work.'
McNeish received a 2010 Prime Minister's Award for Literary Achievement, and was appointed Knight Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to literature at the 2011 New Year Honours. He was a President of Honour of the New Zealand Society of Authors, 2012–2013.
Seelenbinder (Steele Roberts) was published in 2016. Part-fact, part-fiction, the novel explores the Olympic wrestler's role as a communist and part of the anti-Nazi Resistance in 1930's Germany, as he used the cover of the German national wrestling team to distribute dissident, anti-war material. Martin Edmond described the novel as ‘scintillating, suspenseful and revelatory in its disclosure of the malign mix between politics and sport which marked the ’36 Olympics.’ Matthias Metzler for Booksellers NZ reflected that, 'McNeish has crafted a book that is not only valuable in its exploration of the past, but also serves as an interesting tale to be told, and a unique look into the mind of an author.'
James McNeish submitted his final manuscript, Breaking Ranks, to HarperCollins in November 2016. The novel tells the true story of three New Zealanders; a doctor, a soldier and a judge, who defy conventions in standing up for what they believe in, and pay the price for doing so.
James McNeish passed away on 15 November 2016, days after the completion of Breaking Ranks. The novel is expected to be published in April 2017.
Last Updated December 2016
- James McNeish on the Wellington Writer's Walk
- Interview with James McNeish on Radio New Zealand
- Interview with James McNeish for Dominion Post
- Interview with James McNeish by Paul Holmes
- An extract from James McNeish's Touchstones
- Review of James Mcneish's Seelenbinder
- Review of James McNeish's Touchstones
- Article in memorial of James Mcneish on NZ Herald
- Obituary for James McNeish on Stuff