Tuesday, November 2, 2021

Tackling tough issues through crime writing


Craig every second Tuesday.

"Kia ora and gidday everyone."

I hope you all had a happy and fun Halloween, if it's the kind of thing you and your loved ones like to celebrate or enjoy. Growing up in New Zealand, Halloween wasn't such a big thing - Guy Fawkes and fireworks on the 5th of November was the big focus during this week each year. Though we were aware of Halloween due to American films, books, and TV shows, trick or treating wasn't really a thing. It's increasingly become one in New Zealand, Australia, and the UK, among elsewhere, in more recent times. So Miss Six (witch this year) and I indulged on Sunday evening - it's her favourite time of year (she loves spooky and magical things, and monsters). 

The night before was a big one for me too, with the presentation of the Ngaio Marsh Awards, my home country's annual book prizes for crime, mystery, thriller, and suspense writing. 

The winners of the 2019 Ngaio Marsh Awards at a special WORD Christchurch event: Dame Fiona Kidman (Best Novel), Kelly Dennett (Best Non-Fiction) and JP Pomare (Best First Novel)

I helped establish these back in 2010, so this was our 12th season. A Delta outbreak in New Zealand (which had been COVID-free for many months) meant our usual celebratory event in Christchurch that would cap each 'Ngaios season' had to go online, like so many other events have done the past 18 months. The good news was that people all over the world could now watch along live or later, and I could take part myself for the first time since 2014. 

It’s only the second time in 12 years we haven’t held a physical event to celebrate the finalists and reveal the winners, but the online event was a lot of fun in the circumstances, with more than 20 finalists and special guests appearing (including Queen of Crime Val McDermid capping the night by announcing the winner of Best Novel - see video atop this post for Val's speech). You can watch the event back here if you like - some interesting chats. 

Eighteen of our 2021 Ngaios finalists (all but one) were part of four interesting author panels on writing for younger readers, telling compelling real life stories, being a debut author, and exploring social issues through crime fiction. 

I thought today I'd share more about the four authors and books which won the 2021 Ngaio Marsh Awards, emerging from some outstanding groups of finalists and a diverse array of entries. This year we had 60 books entered in our Best Novel category, significantly more than the early years of the Ngaios in 2010-2014. 

The entrants for the 2021 Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Novel: a diverse array of crime, thriller, and mystery tales. Our judges liked and loved so many of them, beyond the finalists and winner

The Ngaios celebrate a broad range of crime, mystery, thriller, and suspense writing, including genre and cross-genre novels (the Ngaios were originally modelled on the Hammett Prize, which celebrates 'literary excellence in crime writing' and has seen the likes of Margaret Atwood win, along with Elmore Leonard and James Lee Burke etc). So Ngaios entries have always been broader than solely murder mysteries or high-octane thrillers etc. 

From the start we wanted to celebrate the idea that crime writing can contain exceptional writing and characterisation as well as page-turning plotlines. Our finalists and winners over the years underline that point. 

In 2021 four Ngaio Marsh Awards were presented: Best Novel, Best First Novel, Best Non-Fiction, and for the first time a special Best Kids/YA Book prize. Candidly, the quality and quantity of books for younger readers entered in this year’s Ngaios forced the addition of the new category ahead of plans. For me, getting kids engaged in reading is so vital, so I was delighted we'd now specifically be celebrating some terrific kids and YA crime/thriller storytellers. 

Celebrated kids author Brian Falkner, a past longlistee for Best Novel, won the first-ever Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Kids/YA book on Saturday

Each award was judged by a separate international judging panel made up of crime fiction experts (critics, editors, academics, authors, etc), collectively from New Zealand, Australia, England, Scotland, South Africa and the USA. From the very start the Ngaios have always been blessed with an outstanding array of judges from all over the world. I felt when establishing the Ngaios that the high calibre of the judges would bring some stature to then new prizes. 

This year's judges included CWA Red Herring Award winner Ali Karim, Newcastle Noir founder Jacky Collins, Mystery Readers International founder Janet Rudolph, and several other leading critics and booklovers.

So Saturday night was what months of entries, judging, and 18 Mystery in the Library events held across New Zealand and Australia to celebrate Kiwi crime, thriller, and mystery authors, all led up to. Here are the winners. 

Best Kids/YA Book - KATIPO JOE: BLITZKRIEG by Brian Falkner
A junior fiction tale centred on young New Zealander Joseph St George, the son of diplomats in 1930s Berlin, who narrowly escapes Germany with his mother as the Nazis are on the rise, but is then recruited by British intelligence and given a mission to infiltrate the Hitler Youth. Inspired by true events, KATIPO JOE is a story of incredible heroism, unlikely friendships and unbearable tragedy, set against the backdrop of World War II.

Our Ngaios judges called it: "a ripping World War 2 thriller for older children and young adults that raises all sorts of questions about loyalty, nationalism, and the loss of youth in war. A fantastic read."

The katipō, New Zealand's only venomous spider, is one of my homeland's many rare and endangered native species

Brian Falkner is a Kiwi children’s book author and writing coach who now lives in Queensland, Australia. A former journalist, graphic designer, and internet developer, he published his first junior fiction book in 2003 and has now published 20 books for younger readers, ranging from mystery and thrillers to science fiction and more. He’s a past winner and multiple shortlistee at the New Zealand Children’s Book Awards. His previous book CASSIE CLARK: OUTLAW, was longlisted for the 2019 Ngaio for Best Novel. A sequel, KATIPO JOE: SPYCRAFT is out now

South Island journalist Martin van Beynen won Best Non-Fiction for his deep dive into one of New Zealand's most infamous murder cases

Best Non-Fiction - BLACK HANDS by Martin van Beynen
The gripping account of one of New Zealand’s most infamous cases, the Bain Family Murders, Martin covered the Bain story closely for decades - the murders happened in the mid 1990s then the case divided the country since through several trials, appeals, and theories. Martin's highly acclaimed podcast Black Hands, which was based on an early manuscript of this book, was a chart-topper in New Zealand and abroad, being downloaded millions of times. Now his book brings the story completely up to date, exploring the case from start to finish and interviewing never-before-spoken-to witnesses as it seeks to answer: who was the killer?

The Ngaios judges said: "An absolutely brilliant insight into the whole case. An in-depth, thoughtful, and carefully constructed account … the horrors of the tale are essayed with admirable detachment."

Martin is an award-winning journalist for The Press and Stuff.co.nz. He has won multiple Qantas and Canon New Zealand Media Awards, and was awarded the 2013 Wolfson Fellowship to Cambridge University. BLACK HANDS is Martin’s second book, after 2012’s TRAPPED, which documented the personal experiences of more than 30 survivors of the Canterbury earthquakes. 

Nelson author Chris Stuart was the latest winner of Best First Novel 

Best First Novel - FOR REASONS OF THEIR OWN by Chris Stuart
Talented but troubled Melbourne DI Robbie Gray has fallen foul of police bureaucracy before being called to a investigate a body found in a rural wetland. When the Federal Police take over and ASIO becomes involved, focusing on a terrorism angle. DI Gray is convinced they are misinterpreting the evidence, or worse, so begins her own investigation assisted by a young Aboriginal policeman. The two outsiders uncover links to corruption in humanitarian aid organisations and political manipulation that challenges their understanding of power and powerlessness and questions their interpretation of whether murder, under certain circumstances, may be justified.

The judges said Stuart’s debut, offered “writing and characters that cry out for an ongoing series.”

Nelson author Chris Stuart was stunned to win the Best First Novel prize, emerging from finalists including hit bestseller THE GIRL IN THE MIRROR.  Born in Christchurch, Chris spent nearly twenty years living and working in different countries as a humanitarian worker, nurse and Consultant with organisations like Red Cross, Oxfam, the UN and AusAID. Chris also worked in outback Australia with Aboriginal communities and in war zones, disasters, disease outbreaks and famine and says having witnessed the best and worst of humanity she has a head full of stories that need to be written.

The 2021 Ngaios livestream closed with Val McDermid announcing Wellington lawyer and author Bran Gnanalinam as winner of Best Novel for SPRIGS

Best Novel - SPRIGS by Brannavan Gnanalingam 
A devastating and powerful novel that examines the impact of violent crime on victim, perpetrators, family, and wider community, in an exploration of simmering issues of sexual violence, racism, sports culture, and toxic masculinity. At an end-of-season party following a high school rugby final, Wellington teenager Priya is horrifically assaulted by members of a prestigious school’s First XV. When the reality of what happened begins to emerge, the institutions of wealth and privilege circle the wagons. 

The international judging panel said: “Engaging, disturbing, powerful storytelling. The crime is horrific and a lot of deep, important questions are raised. The characters are vey well-drawn and each voice rings true.”

Brannavan is a Wellington lawyer and author who was born in Sri Lanka and grew up in Lower Hutt. His acclaimed novels blend and range across ‘genres’, from travelogue to satire, spy tales to a day in the life of a refugee. Three of his novels have been listed for the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards, my home country's sorta equivalent to the Booker Prize or Australia's Miles Franklin Award (SPRIGS was shortlisted this year). 

It was a great night, in the circumstances, to conclude another interesting year for the Ngaio Marsh Awards. 

Thanks for reading. 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)


  1. Thanks for bringing us up to date on the awards. The TBR grows. You must be very proud of the Ngaios and what you've done for NZ writing. Congratulations.

  2. What a great thing you did for Crime writers, Craig, by establishing these awards that call attention to the work!
    That said, I also have to say that Brannavan Gnanlingam sounds like the name of a Tolkien character. I always thought those books had such a wonderful, mellifluous invented names. Evidently, they are just imitations of the monikers of real Kiwis!

  3. Your daughter has so very much to be proud of in her daddy. May you both have a grand Guy Fawkes Day celebration!