Tuesday, September 7, 2021

Dark tales from the ends of the earth


A diverse array of New Zealand mystery, suspense, thriller, and crime tales were longlisted for the 2021 Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Novel. Finalists revealed soon.

Craig every second Tuesday.

Kia ora and gidday everyone.

Back in August I showcased the eight novels that were shortlisted for the Ned Kelly Award for Best Crime Fiction - Australia's national crime writing awards. Recently the winner was announced: CONSOLATION by Garry Disher. 

A brilliant book; I'd highly recommend you grab yourself a copy (along with others from the shortlist). 

Today I had intended to discuss the finalists for the Ngaio Marsh Awards - New Zealand's national crime writing awards - as they were scheduled to be revealed a few hours before my post here. Unfortunately, due a recent, small COVID outbreak in New Zealand and subsequent lockdowns, that announcement has been postponed as plans are assessed and possibly changed in terms of the live 2021 Ngaio Marsh Awards event due to happen in late October. 

So instead, today I thought I'd cast my eye over the longlist for the 2021 Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Novel, giving you all a look at the diverse array of New Zealand novels that are currently in the running. 

As some of you may know, I am the founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards, New Zealand's national literary prizes for crime, mystery, thriller, and suspense fiction (note: I am no longer a voting judge, though I help with organisation). 

New Zealand Herald photo of me in 2010, with original Ngaio Marsh Award and some contenders for our second year (BLOOD MEN by Paul Cleave won in 2011)

The Ngaio Marsh Awards were established in 2010, beginning with a single category for the best crime, mystery, thriller, or suspense novel written by a New Zealand citizen or resident. Modelled somewhat on the Hammett Prize in North America - which celebrates literary excellence in crime writing and has been won by the likes of Margaret Atwood alongside more recognisable 'crime' names like Elmore Leonard, James Lee Burke, and Megan Abbott - the Ngaio Marsh Awards took a broad, inclusive view of 'crime fiction', and over the years our entrants and finalists have ranged from classic detective tales and thrillers to literary mysteries, sci-fi thrillers, and romantic suspense. 

You can read more detail about the many things that led to the creation of the awards - including a Latin American adventure,  chat with a Canadian crime writer, a fortuitous library visit in Auckland, and someone not getting their article in for deadline - in a post I wrote celebrating five years of the awards in 2014. 

In recent years further categories have been added, including Best First Novel, Best Non-Fiction, and this year for the first time a special Best YA/Kids category (there have been YA books longlisted for Best Novel in the past). Nowadays we get 60+ entries each year. New Zealand crime writing is going from strength to strength. 

On 15 July, following an extended judging process in a challenging year, the longlist for the 2021 Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Novel was revealed. It's a fascinating array of books, including many newer voices. 

While I'm not on the international judging panel that is deciding the finalists and the winner, I have read and enjoyed many of this year's contenders. I'll refrain from sharing my own 'review' thoughts here though, since I am deeply involved with the organisation of the awards and we're still to announce the finalists and winner. 

But here's a wee rundown of all eight contenders: 

THE STONE WETA by Octavia Cade: With governments denying climate science, scientists from affected countries and organizations are forced to traffic data to ensure the preservation of research that could in turn preserve the world. From Antarctica, to the Chihuahuan Desert, to the International Space Station, a fragile network forms. A web of knowledge. Secret. But not secret enough.

When the cold war of data preservation turns bloody – and then explosive – an underground network of scientists, all working in isolation, must decide how much they are willing to risk for the truth. For themselves, their colleagues, and their future. Murder on Antarctic ice. A university lecturer’s car, found abandoned on a desert road. And the first crewed mission to colonize Mars, isolated and vulnerable in the depths of space. How far would you go to save the world?

In a review for the Academy of New Zealand Literature, Angelique Kasmara said: "There’s a freshness and boldness of vision in The Stone Wētā, an intricately crafted, near-future narrative ... Cade never lets her clearly considerable scientific knowledge overwhelm the story, and her writing style is energetic and engaging."

THE GIRL IN THE MIRROR by Rose Carlyle: Beautiful twin sisters Iris and Summer are startlingly alike, but beyond what the eye can see lies a darkness that sets them apart. Cynical and insecure, Iris has long been envious of open-hearted Summer's seemingly never-ending good fortune, including her perfect husband, Adam.

Called to Thailand to help sail the family yacht to the Seychelles, Iris nurtures her own secret hopes for what might happen on the journey. But when she unexpectedly finds herself alone in the middle of the Indian Ocean, everything changes. Now is her chance to take what she's always wanted - the idyllic life she's always coveted. But just how far will she go to get the life she's dreamed about? And how will she make sure no one discovers the truth?

In a review for Criminal Element, Doreen Sheridan said: "This is a thrilling page-turner that has the reader unexpectedly empathizing with flawed, complex characters even as it grapples with the idea of what it means to be nice, what it means to be dumb, and what it takes to get everything you ever wanted."

When a little boy is found with his neck broken, Lhasa detective Shan Lia leaves her broken past behind and throws herself into the investigation. He is the fifth child to die the same way in as many weeks. But Lia’s superiors don’t want her looking for a serial killer. They don’t want panic and hysteria rolling across the country. They threaten Lia, giving her no choice but to turn her back on bringing the killer to justice. Until another boy is murdered. Then another.

Risking her life, Lia pursues the killer. With spies in the monasteries of Tibet and shadowy figures trying to thwart her hunt for justice, Lia faces the edge of the abyss to reveal the Snow Thief – but at what terrifying price?

In a review for the Nelson Public Libraries website, Alyson Baker said: "There is plenty of action in The Snow Thief ... but it is the endless insecurity of who to trust, and not knowing what is going on, that keeps the tension high, that and the wonderfully complex characters. The Snow Thief is a moving and compelling read."

SHAKTI by Rajorshi Chakraborti: 
What if the greatest gift you ever received came from those you trusted least? What if it stained your hands with blood, but also turned you into a hero? What if giving it up was not an option? Amid a climate of right-wing, nationalist politics, three Indian women find themselves wielding powers that match their wildest dreams. There is one catch: they come with a Faustian price.

With unforgettable heroines and at an irresistible pace, Shakti unfolds a world of as much courage as there is darkness, and a journey across a country in the throes of transformation. A hitherto unseen country, made up of the secrets, longings, wounds and strengths of many human heart. 

In a review for Stuff.co.nz (NZ's largest media website), Steve Walker said: "This magical realist fantasy is also a sharp satire on the murky depths of Indian political corruption ... a bold new move in New Zealand fiction."

DANCE PRONE by David Coventry: 1985. Neus Bauen, a post-hardcore band from Illinois, are touring America, on the brink of fame. When one member of the band is sexually assaulted and another is wounded by a gunshot, these two cataclysmic events alter the course of the band’s four members’ lives forever.

Decades later, amongst the sprawl and shout of Morocco, some of the band are reunited. There they attempt to piece together what happened to them during the lost years between their punk-infused days and nights on the road, and the world they find themselves in today. Dance Prone is a novel of music, ritual and love. It is live, tense and corporeal. Full of closely observed details of indie-rock, of punk infused performance, the road and the players’ relationship to violence, hate and peace.

In a review for Newsroom, award-winning novelist Annaleese Jochems said: "Dance Prone is part whodunnit, and part philosophical voyage, but it’s most striking in its treatment of trauma and rape ... Coventry engages the blind, helpless evil behind the perpetrator’s actions with thought and empathy, at no cost to our sense of the inestimable hurt suffered by the victims."

THE MURDER CLUB by Nikki Crutchley: When the first letter arrives saying that ‘tonight it begins’, journalist Miller Hatcher ignores it. But then the body of a murdered woman is discovered, strangled, a scarf around her neck. Cassie Hughes has always vowed to find the man who murdered her mother. Cassie knows he’s out there and wants him to pay, and Miller agrees to bring the cold case back into the public’s eye.

Logan Dodds has been obsessed with true crime ever since his sister was murdered thirty years ago. He has turned his obsession into a career and has created the True Crime Enthusiasts Club and his newest venture, True Crime Tours. The lives of Miller, Cassie and Logan – all affected differently by murder – become entwined as The Scarf Killer, desperate for infamy, and Miller’s attention, makes his mark on the small town of Lentford.

In a review for Flaxflower reviews, Fran Hartley said: "This is a great read, that is easy to follow with plenty of false leads and suspects with a surprising conclusion ... a good “whodunnit” story and makes you wonder what secrets a small town can hide!"

SPRIGS by Brannavan Gnanalingam: It is Saturday afternoon and two boys’ schools are locked in battle for college rugby supremacy. Priya – a fifteen year old who barely belongs – watches from the sidelines. Then it is Saturday night and the team is partying, Priya's friends have evaporated and she isn't sure what to do.

In the weeks after 'the incident' life seems to go on. But when whispers turn to confrontation, the institutions of wealth and privilege circle the wagons.

In a review for the Otago Daily Times, Rob Kidd said"If you finish reading Sprigs and do not feel like you have been punched in the guts, there is something wrong with you ... What Gnanalingam does brilliantly is subvert the stereotypes, while intricately showing how toxic masculinity pervades and is enabled ... heartbreaking and essential reading."

CAUGHT BETWEEN by Jeannie McLean: 
The body of sixteen-year-old Jasmine Dunn is washed up on a Te Atatu beach. The next day, her mother's body is found near Bethels. Tova Tan lives downstairs from the Dunns and was seen arguing with Jasmine. Known to the police, Tova becomes their main suspect. 

When Tova's half-brother is also implicated, her loyalty to him drags her deep into his seedy lifestyle. The police suspect Tova knows more than she's telling although an unlikely ally appears in Constable Finn McIntosh who is less inclined than his colleagues to jump to conclusions. Searching her parents' past for a truth that could save her family, Tova finds herself caught in a dangerous and illicit world where she will have to fight for her very survival.

In a review for Crime Watch, novelist Shauna Bickley said: "Caught Between shows us the seedy world of hired heavies and drugs mixed with poor suburbs and people trying to live as best they can ... a police-procedural set in and around Auckland, with a mix of action-packed scenes, and, as in all great murder mysteries, a good twist at the end."

THE TALLY STICK by Carl Nixon: Up on the highway, the only evidence that the Chamberlains had ever been there was two smeared tyre tracks in the mud leading into the almost undamaged screen of bushes and trees. No other cars passed that way until after dawn. By that time the tracks had been washed away by the heavy rain . . . It was a magic trick. After being in the country for only five days, the Chamberlain family had vanished into the air. The date was 4 April 1978.

In 2010 the remains of the eldest Chamberlain child have been discovered in a remote part of the West Coast, showing he lived for four years after the family disappeared. Found alongside him are his father’s watch and what turns out to be a tally stick, a piece of wood scored across, marking items of debt. How had he survived and then died? Where was the rest of his family? And what is the meaning of the tally stick?

In a review for The Spinoff, Erin Harrington said: "Taut and well-plotted, balancing a mounting sense of dread with unexpected payoffs, and dancing across two parallel storylines ... it challenges our expectations of genre, and in doing so engages with thorny questions about the nature of our relationships with one another."

A regular weekday morning veers drastically off-course for five strangers whose paths cross in a London café - their lives never to be the same again when an apparently crazed gunman holds them hostage. But there is more to the situation than first meets the eye and as the captives grapple with their own inner demons, the line between right and wrong starts to blur. Will the secrets they keep stop them from escaping with their lives?

In a review for the New Zealand Herald newspaper, Greg Fleming said: "Norman's skill is in creating readily identifiable characters who carry their own small and large tragedies and secrets ... In a genre which often celebrates style over substance this is a compelling and moving novel which should bring Norman to a whole new world of readers."

TELL ME LIES by JP Pomare: 
Margot’s clients all lie to her, but one lie could cost her family and freedom. Psychologist Margot Scott has a picture-perfect life: a nice house in the suburbs, a husband, two children, and a successful career. On a warm spring morning, Margot spots one of her clients on a busy train platform. He is looking down at his phone, with his duffel bag in hand as the train approaches. That’s when she slams into his back and he falls in front of the train. Suddenly, one tragedy leads to another leaving her, her family, and her patients in danger. As misfortune unfolds, listeners will soon question Margot’s true role in all of these unfortunate events.

In a review for Newtown Review of Books, novelist Ashley Kalagian Blunt said: "Pomare takes a fresh angle on psychological manipulation ... What makes Pomare’s novels especially powerful is the blurring of ethical lines, spurred by revelations that come deep into the story and force re-evaluations of each character’s motives ... further establishing his reputation as a master of the genre."

SOLDIERS by Tom Remiger: 
Breen sometimes thought sourly that Tiger Jackson would have made a good fascist. He told unreliable stories, he liked power and admiration, and he had all three military virtues- self-belief, luck, and an eye for the main chance. Despite all this, Breen liked him. Somehow it was impossible not to.

After the death of Corporal Daniel Cousins in what is apparently a training accident, a young officer, Lieutenant Breen, becomes obsessed by the case. Was Cousins murdered by one of his own? Breen's investigation, as well as his unanticipated love affair with a superior officer, threatens the unity of his comrades as they wait for the suffering to come in the Battle of Crete-one of the defining encounters of World War II.

In a review for Stuff.co.nz, David Herkt said: "A story of men in conflict – and not only during the battles and engagements of World War II, but within themselves and with those around them ... Remiger’s book is without parallel in recent New Zealand literature. It is a fine and visceral novel."

So, who'll win this year's Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Novel? It's certainly a diverse field that gave our international panel of judges (six crime fiction experts from New Zealand, Australia, the United States and the UK) plenty to chew over. After the longlist was announced, I was very curious to see which book/s the may judges prefer. 

If you enjoy good storytelling, you can't go too wrong nabbing some of the books on this longlist.  

Have you read any New Zealand crime fiction? If so, what have been some of your favourite books? Which of this year's Ngaio Marsh Award contenders do you think you're most likely to add to your TBR pile?

Until next time. Ka kite anō.

Whakataukī of the fortnight: 
Inspired by Zoe and her 'word of the week', I'll be ending my fortnightly posts by sharing a whakataukī (Māori proverb), a pithy and poetic thought to mull on as we go through life.

Ehara taku toa, he takitahi, he toa takitini
(My success should not be bestowed onto me alone, as it was not individual success but success of a collective)

Kete baskets, woven from flax, serve as a reminder of the resilience of the Maori people and the passing down of knowledge from generation to generation.  

1 comment:

  1. What a terrific array of books, Craig! You never cease to amaze your fans...of which I'm up at the head of the line. Time for me to get the kindle fired up.