Tuesday, November 14, 2023

Celebrating Kiwi crime with the 2023 Ngaios

A younger and less hirsute CS in 2010, when the Ngaio Marsh Awards
were launched (pictured with contenders for the 2011 prize)

Craig every second Tuesday.

Kia ora and gidday everyone. I've been away for a wee while, with a few personal things going on, but glad to be back on Murder is Everywhere, casting a light on the crime fiction world from a Down Under perspective. 

I've been reading some pretty fabulous books in recent weeks, including the likes of DARK RIDE by Edgar Award-winning Oklahoma author Lou Berney - his first novel in a few years - and HIS FAVOURITE GRAVES by Kiwi crime star Paul Cleave and THE SEVEN by Aussie crime star Chris Hammer (to be published as COVER THE BONES in the UK and USA early next year). But with the much-awaited 2023 Ngaio Marsh Awards - my home country's annual crime, mystery, and thriller fiction prizes - being presented next week, I thought I'd talk about them today. 

Back in August we announced the finalist for the 2023 Ngaio Marsh Awards. This year’s finalists range across three categories, and an array of styles, settings, and stories, exploring in fiction and non-fiction important topics from radical empathy and redemption in one of the world’s most notorious psychiatric facilities to familial grief, dealing with dementia, mass surveillance, and the ongoing impact of colonisation and the Dawn Raids. 

Included this year was our Ngaio for Best Non-Fiction, a biennial award introduced in 2017 to celebrate true crime writing, biography and memoir about real-life crime and justice matters, and non-fiction about crime fiction. That award was first won in 2017 by Maori filmmaker Michael Bennett (Ngāti Pikiao, Ngāti Whakaue) for IN DARK PLACES, a book about the wrongful murder conviction of teenage car thief Teina Pora. Michael has since gone on to turn the book into an award-winning film, and write his own first crime novel, BETTER THE BLOOD.

Filmmaker and author Michael Bennett with Teina Pora

Other past winners of the Best Non-Fiction category are journalists Kelly Dennett for THE SHORT LIFE AND MYSTERIOUS DEATH OF JANE FURLONG, and most recently by Martin van Beynen for BLACK HANDS, which explores one of New Zealand's most controversial murder cases, the Bain Family slayings. This year's finalists are:

Best Non-Fiction:

  • A NEW DAWN by Emeli Sione (Mila’s Books)
  • THE DEVIL YOU KNOW by Dr Gwen Adshead & Eileen Horne (Faber)
  • DOWNFALL: THE DESTRUCTION OF CHARLES MACKAY by Paul Diamond (Massey University Press)
  • THE FIX by Scott Bainbridge (Bateman Books)
  • MISSING PERSONS by Steve Braunias (HarperCollins)

It's an interesting array of finalists, ranging from a youth-focused book from a first-time author exploring a dark period of New Zealand's 20th century history (the dawn raids on immigrant Pacific Islands families), A NEW DAWN, to a collection of shorter real-life tales from one of New Zealand's most acclaimed and award-winning journalists, MISSING PERSONS, to a fascinating exploration of the junction between criminal violence and mental health from an expert who's lived it, working at Broadmoor and other institutions (THE DEVIL YOU KNOW). Plus a couple of great reads from terrific storytellers exploring historic crime in Aotearoa, THE FIX, and DOWNFALL. 

In A NEW DAWN, the marvellous Emeli Sione, who sadly passed away in
August, shares her experiences and the impact of the infamous Dawn Raids

Turning now to the fiction categories, there are two sets of finalists: one for Best First Novel, and one for Best Novel. In the Ngaios, debuts are also debut for the 'main' or 'open' prize, so this year like some in the past (including last year when Jacqueline Bublitz's outstanding BEFORE YOU KNEW MY NAME made history by winning both categories) there are a couple of novels that are dual finalists, from Bennett and fellow Aucklander Simon Lendrum. 

In the official announcement in August, British journalist and reviewer Louise Fairbairn, the Chair of an international judging panel for the Best First Novel category that also included South African writer Sonja van der Westhuizen, British reviewer and long-time CWA Daggers judge Ayo Onatade, and Australian podcaster and author Dani Vee, said: 

“There is no shortage of fresh ideas in New Zealand crime fiction, nor in breadth of style, with this year's entrants running from chilling thrillers to the cosier end of the spectrum ... Those debuts that particularly caught our attention were unafraid to explore difficult real-life issues and embed themselves in an authentic New Zealand of rough edges and grey areas, rather than glossy make-believe.”

Best First Novel: 

  • ONE HEART ONE SPADE by Alistair Luke
  • TOO FAR FROM ANTIBES by Bede Scott (Penguin SEA)
  • BETTER THE BLOOD by Michael Bennett (Simon & Schuster)
  • SURVEILLANCE by Riley Chance (CopyPress Books)
  • THE SLOW ROLL by Simon Lendrum (Upstart Press)
  • PAPER CAGE by Tom Baragwanath (Text Publishing)

Last year Jacqueline Bublitz made history by winning both fiction categories
at the Ngaios. Her outstanding debut was also shortlisted for CWA Gold Dagger

Best Novel:

  • EXIT .45 by Ben Sanders (Allen & Unwin)
  • BLUE HOTEL by Chad Taylor (Brio Books)
  • REMEMBER ME by Charity Norman (Allen & Unwin)
  • THE DOCTOR’S WIFE by Fiona Sussman (Bateman Books)
  • BETTER THE BLOOD by Michael Bennett (Simon & Schuster)
  • BLOOD MATTERS by Renée (The Cuba Press)
  • THE SLOW ROLL by Simon Lendrum (Upstart Press)

As I mentioned in the official press release in August, when we first launched New Zealand’s own annual prizes for crime, mystery, and thriller writing in 2010, we modelled the Ngaio Marsh Awards on the Hammett Prize in North America, which celebrates literary excellence in crime writing. The Ngaios have never been solely about detective fiction; instead highlighting and celebrating outstanding Kiwi storytellers whose tales, fictional and factual, explore the investigation of crime or the impact or effects of crime on people and society.

Fourteen years into our national crime writing awards, I'm stoked to see a range of new voices emerging, as well as terrific new tales from both well-established crime writers, and writers shifting from other styles and genres.

This year's finalists will be celebrated and the winners announced at a special event in Christchurch, Dame Ngaio's hometown, next Friday, 24 November at Tūranga, the terrific new central library and events centre. 

Dame Ngaio Marsh was one of the Golden Age Queens of Crime
and noted theatrical director and painter as well as mystery novelist

Have you read any of this year's Ngaio Marsh Awards finalists, or any books by Dame Ngaio?

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.

Nāu te rourou, nāku te rourou, ka ora ai te iwi

(With your food basket and my food basket the people will thrive, ie everybody has something to offer, and by working together we can all flourish.)


  1. Hi Craig, I'm always interested in these awards-- partly because I have read each of Dame Ngaio Marsh's 32 books multiple times (Inspector Alleyn and Agatha Troy are my favorite marriage in fiction) as well as her autobiography, and also because I've been lucky enough to visit NZ several times and am always looking for new books written by Kiwi authors. Thanks so much for this post and congratulations to all the finalists!

  2. Hi Craig Yes, I read Alistair Luke’s One Heart One Spade after attending a meet the authors in the local library. Also, as an aside, i am lucky enough to live in Ngaio.