Tuesday, May 3, 2022

"Take a good look around, this is your hometown"

The conjoining of the Wairoa and Wai-iti Rivers near Brightwater, as they become the Waimea River in the Tasman District at the Top of the South Island of New Zealand 

"I was eight years old
And running with a dime in my hand
To the bus stop to pick
Up a paper for my old man 
I'd sit on his lap in that big old Buick 
And steer as we drove through town 
He'd tousle my hair 
And say, 'son, take a good look around,
This is your hometown' ..."

from "My Hometown" by Bruce Springsteen 

Craig every second Tuesday

Kia ora and gidday everyone. 

I hope you've all been well lately, even as our world continues to bump along through plenty of tumult and crises. Today, for the first time in over a month, I woke up in London. While the capital city of the United Kingdom has been my home for several years now, the UK isn't my homeland. That is and always will be Aotearoa New Zealand, an island nation at the far end of the world (the antipodes) from here. 

For the first forty years of my life, I spent all or some of each calendar year in New Zealand. For most of my life I lived there, and at other times when I was travelling extensively or even based overseas, I returned each year for several weeks to see friends and family. 

That all stopped with the onset of the COVID pandemic: travel restrictions meant that 2020 and 2021 were the first years I never spent any time in New Zealand. In fact, by March this year it was more than three years since I'd last been 'home'. Given it was a once-a-century pandemic and many people have suffered greatly, far more than me, I just accepted this - although it was pretty difficult at times. 

Dawn over the Waimea Inlet on our last full day in the Top of the South

Given all the above, and all that's happened, I wasn't sure how I would feel to be back in New Zealand, when we decided on short notice in mid March to head back for the month of April. Like the narrator character in Springsteen's song, my hometown has noticeably changed over the years - each year I'm back some things are quite different, eg an orchard from my childhood has become a new housing subdivision, shops and restaurants have changed, while some things stay the same, or at least close to what they were. 

Would it be more jarring this time, having been a lot longer? 

While I don't have a son to now put on my knee in a car and say 'take a good look around', I do have a daughter. London is her birthplace and her hometown, but Aotearoa New Zealand and my home region of Tasman in the Top of the South Island of New Zealand is her whakapapa (genealogy). An important part of who she is. She'd visited six times in the first five years of her life, but not the past two and a bit; which means that despite the many visits in her first years, she doesn't have a lot of real memories of it.

Guess who's back? On 31 March it was so lovely to see the tomokanga (carved entranceway) welcoming international arrivals to Auckland airport

After three and a bit years, walking through the impressive tomokanga (an entranceway decorated with impressive toi whakairo, Māori wood carvings) at Auckland airport in the early hours of 31 March - the last to disembark from the plane as Miss Seven belatedly needed the bathroom - was a surreal feeling. 

Not as jarring as I expected. 

It felt completely natural, and the COVID years and forced distance just melted away as we saw and spent lots of time with family and old friends that first day and every day of the following month. Some things had changed of course, but overall it just felt like we'd just been back last year, as usual, rather than three years ago. Frankly, we revelled in this trip, filling our days with nature walks, catch ups with important people in our lives, and showing Miss Seven a fair bit of the country where almost all her relatives come from. Now she has lots of great memories that I'm sure will linger for a long time. 

Paddling a 12-person waka in the Abel Tasman National Park

Before COVID, I regularly wrote international travel articles for several magazines, for many years. Just a side gig among my other writings - I loved regularly travelling to new places, experiencing new things and then maybe writing about it later (rather than going on scheduled travel writer trips etc). 

There's so much to do in Aotearoa New Zealand that even with a month there and plenty of inside knowledge of cool things 'off the beaten track', we barely scratched the surface. But it was a month filled with moments large and small, on a daily basis, that replenished my soul and filled my heart. 

Cheesy? Yeah, but true. 

A bit of photography magic as the sun lowers at Tahunanui beach

Now we're back in London, and I'm re-energised for the year ahead. I'm looking forward to hopefully seeing lots more old friends, and meeting new people, at a variety of crime fiction festivals over the spring, summer, and autumn, from Harrogate to Bute Noir and Bloody Scotland, and maybe a few more. I realise now that those festivals, pre-COVID, like our regular trips back to New Zealand, helped me 'fill my cup' each year. Being surrounded by creative people who love storytelling and get things done in an industry that can be oh-so-fickle, not always fair, but oh-so-fantastic at the same time.

I even did a few video interviews with crime writers (some upcoming articles in NZ and US magazines) and read a few books while in New Zealand. A bit of 'work', enjoyably so, during our vacation. 

The life of a freelancer. 

And of course, while our NZ trip was largely about family and old friends and experiencing some of the Kiwi outdoors with Miss Seven, I couldn't help but catch up with a few fabulous Kiwi crime writers and other bookish folks while travelling around the country. In fact a six-day road-trip from Auckland to Otago became unexpectedly crime fiction focused as I visited with not only a few authors and festival directors in their hometowns, but at quite short notice caught up with some fellow Kiwis-abroad who were also back visiting (the beauty of social media - "are you back in NZ? I am too", more than once).

So, while I could fill up this post 100x over with scenic New Zealand shots, from our many dawn or sunset walks to national park visits and lots of time spent in postcard scenery that has no particular designation, instead since this is a 'Murder is Everywhere' blog, here's a final few snaps showing crime fiction all over my home country. Check out some of their books; lots of treasures to discover. 

: catching up on my first weekend 'back home' with award-winning Māori screenwriter and director Michael Bennett (Ngati Pikiao, Ngati Whakaue), whose excellent first crime novel BETTER THE BLOOD comes out in the UK, Australia, and New Zealand in August. and the USA in early 2023 (with several translations to follow). A couple of days before Michael had just received the news that he'd been invited to appear onstage at this year's Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate, with his debut having been handpicked by Val McDermid for the New Blood panel. 

Waikato: just down the road from the city of Hamilton, the smaller town of Cambridge is known as 'the town of trees and champions' thanks to its leafy streets, heritage buildings and thoroughbred horse racing stud farms. In more recent years when I think of Cambridge I also think of talented author Nikki Crutchley, a multiple Ngaio Marsh Awards finalist whose latest thriller, TO THE SEA came out in Australia and New Zealand just before Christmas and has been getting great reviews

Rotorua: driving across the 'volcanic plateau' of New Zealand's central North Island, I had an unexpected catch-up with the brilliant JP Pomare, a Māori novelist who now lives in Melbourne but launched his debut, CALL ME EVIE, at Rotorua Noir (he grew up locally) in January 2019. His debut and subsequent psychological thrillers have gone on to win or be shortlisted for several awards. 

Hawke's Bay: heading southeast across the North Island, I had an author double feature after driving through heavy rain in the Tararua Ranges, emerging to brilliant sunshine in the lovely Hawke's Bay and stopping for an afternoon (non-alcoholic) drink with Tina Clough, before staying overnight at the rural property of Charity Norman. Born in Uganda, raised in British vicarages, barrister turned novelist Charity has lived in New Zealand for two decades now, and been shortlisted for numerous awards. Her new book, REMEMBER ME, is a real cracker, set near her home in the wild countryside.

At Cuba Press with Ngaios winner Jennifer Lane, debut author Anne Harre, Wellington librarian Neil Johnstone, and publisher Mary McCallum

Wellington: continuing south to New Zealand's capital, which is home to several terrific crime writers, I caught up with the team at Cuba Press, who published Renee's Ngaios longlisted crime debut THE WILD CARD, before COVID upturned all our lives. (Renee is a legendary New Zealand playwright, authors, and rights activist in New Zealand who in 2018 received the prestigious Prime Minister's Award for Literary Achievement, and decided to write her first crime novel as she entered her tenth decade. At the Cuba Press drinks I caught up with past Ngaios winner Jennifer Lane (ALL OUR SECRETS) and met Anne Harre, whose debut THE LEANING MAN is in 2022 Ngaios mix.

Christchurch: while I didn't have time to visit the legendary Dame Ngaio Marsh's house while passing through Christchurch on the way to Otago, I did get the opportunity to visit with contemporary Kiwi crime royalty: three-time Ngaios winner and international bestseller Paul Cleave. It was in fact a review of one of Paul's books, CEMETERY LAKE (alongside a review of Vanda Symon's CONTAINMENT) that kickstarted my unexpected journey in the crime writing world, from reviewer to features writer, event chair to awards judge to part-time agent, and now awards-listed (non-fiction) author myself. Paul's 12th crime novel, THE QUIET PEOPLE, is out now in the northern hemisphere and is terrific. 

With founding members of the Dunedin Detective Club, Vanda Symon and Liam McIlvanneyk

Dunedin: while I've never lived in Dunedin, it's always been an important wee city to me: my mother and sister were born there, my grandma and several aunts, uncles, and cousins live/d there, and lots of my school friends went to university there. And while Christchurch can claim strong Kiwi crime roots with Dame Ngaio, Dunedin's arguably stretch back even further, to the bestselling detective novel of the nineteenth century: A MYSTERY OF A HANSOM CAB was set in Melbourne, but it was written by an aspiring playwright, Fergus Hume, who'd grown up and done all his schooling and law degree in Dunedin. The city is now also home to a cadre of cool crime writers, including the fabulous Vanda Symon (Sam Shephard series, FACELESS) and Professor Liam McIlvanney (THE QUAKER, etc). 

Central Otago: a really terrific crime series that's launched in recent years stars 'the Nancys', an amateur detective crew made up of adolescent Tippy Chan, a Chinese New Zealander grieving the death of her father, and her uncle Pike, a gay hairdresser usually living in Sydney, and his fashionista boyfriend Devon. The first two books, THE NANCYS and NANCY BUSINESS are raucous and charming and just great reads. I was lucky while passing through Queenstown to cap my road trip to get a chance to meet the author, RWR McDonald, who is himself usually based in Melbourne. 

Nelson: while I didn't manage to catch up with any crime writers while visiting my home region for a couple of weeks, I did have one of my coolest bookish moments, maybe ever (see above). Miss Seven was delighted to see 'Daddy's book' in a real-life bookshop in New Zealand. I was surprised and thrilled to discover my local Paper Plus had several copies, face fronted in the NZ Non-Fiction section. 

A very cool moment for me, especially as my book came out during the height of COVID when all events and festivals were cancelled and many bookshops were shut, it had to be sea freighted to Australia and New Zealand, it's been difficult for Kiwi bookshops to restock after the initial supply, and that my book frankly is for 'book nerds' who really love the genre and attend festivals and events etc, so isn't going to be heavily stocked in every bricks and mortar bookshop anyway (unlike some of the authors I discuss or interview in SOUTHERN CROSS CRIME). 

I also managed to visit with an old and influential school teacher, who helped inspire my love of reading, writing, and research. She's mentioned in the credits of SOUTHERN CROSS CRIME, so it was very cool to catch up with her. She even asked me to sign her copy of my book, which she'd bought (I had one to give her anyway, but she'd already bought one herself, which was pretty cool.)

So there you go, just a few wee snippets of what I've been up to the past few weeks. It was 'bloody marvellous', as we say Downunder, to get to go home for a while and share time with people I love and places that fill the soul that I haven't seen for far too long. 

I'm full of gratitude and raring to go for the rest of the year. Hope to see some of you at some of the crime writing festivals happening during the northern Spring, Summer, and Autumn/Fall. 

Until next time, ka kita ano. 

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

E hoa ma, ina te ora o te tangata

(My friends, this is the essence of life)


  1. What a great trip! I hope you cross the pond and come to Bouchercon!

    1. i went to Bouchercon in Toronto in 2017 and had a great time. Fully intended to return, perhaps for the recent New Orleans one, but COVID has kiboshed a few plans. Definitely intend to be back in the States at some point for either or both of Bouchercon and Left Coast Crime in future years.

  2. Aha, Craig, we each grew up in a hometown nestled at the confluence of two rivers forming a mighty third, and I too have not been home for three years. On top of that, when I return next week it will be for the "novel" reason of joining a group of authors invited to participate in the first ever Greater Pittsburgh Festival of Books. Perhaps that explains why I agree wholeheartedly with the caption for your final photo!!!