Crime on the rise

A mystery wrapped in an enigma is the very apt winner of the inaugural New Zealand crime-writing award.

Commercial lawyer turned journalist Craig Sisterson organised the Ngaio Marsh Award from Best Crime Novel held in Christchurch. Photo / Janna Dixon
Commercial lawyer turned journalist Craig Sisterson organised the Ngaio Marsh Award from Best Crime Novel held in Christchurch. Photo / Janna Dixon

It was the moment Craig Sisterson had been working towards for months. On Tuesday night some of the country's top thriller writers gathered belatedly in Christchurch for the presentation of the inaugural Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel.

With the first event he'd planned scuppered by the Christchurch earthquake, Sisterson must have been hanging out for the sight of his first winner up on the podium clutching the specially designed and handcrafted trophy. But like all good whodunits, there's a twist in this tale. For the country's new award for crime writing was won by Alix Bosco, the anonymous author of Cut & Run whose pseudonym has never been breached.

But Sisterson says that it still makes for a good headline. "Mystery author wins mystery prize," is his suggestion.

Although he demurs at being called the champion of Kiwi crime writers, commercial lawyer turned journalist Sisterson has done an enormous amount to promote a genre that seems to have been undervalued locally in recent years.

Sisterson's life of crime began in 2008 when he hit on the idea of starting a blog devoted to mysteries and thrillers. "I'd fallen into reviewing books and interviewing authors," he says. "It was work I enjoyed but only about 20 per cent of the material ended up being published. I had all this information to share with people so I thought I'd put it up online."

Just for fun, on evenings and weekends, Sisterson worked away on kiwicrime.blogspot.com

It provided a balance to his day job as a writer for NZ Lawyer magazine and steadily he began to build up followers.

"I could have done a general books blog but there were already some really good ones out there," he says. "Crime is one of the things I like to read and I thought there was a bit of a hole, especially when it came to New Zealand stuff."

While the Kiwi crime-writing scene is flourishing - with authors who include Paul Cleave, Paddy Richardson, Lindy Kelly, Vanda Symon, the elusive Bosco and Ben Sanders all releasing pacey examples of the genre - it seems there's still a level of cultural cringe out there among readers. "It's tricky," says Sisterson, 32. "Personally I think we overlook popular fiction in general and certain genres in particular in New Zealand.

Take Paul Cleave. Several thousand of his books have been sold in Germany but in his hometown of Christchurch there are many bookstores were you can't find them."

Sisterson's hope was that his blog might help turn attitudes around. "Crime is often at the top of the international best-seller list but the New Zealand work was hardly ever appearing until recently," he points out. "I thought if I let people know about this stuff it'll be slow but it may help it take off. We've got writing that stands up and we just need to give it a go."

New Zealand has a long tradition of crimewriting that seems to have been almost forgotten this century. Sisterson can often be found in secondhand bookshops ferreting about for out-of-print books by authors from previous decades such as Laurie Mantell, Elizabeth Messenger, Joyce West and Mary Scott.

"I now have on my shelves about 150 books that would fit the broader definition of crime and that's not counting the contemporary ones," says Sisterson, who grew up in Nelson reading Agatha Christie and Patricia Cornwall. He didn't set out to instigate the award, but as he talked to publishers, booksellers and readers Sisterson heard many comments that crime novels didn't have a show of winning any of our existing book awards.

Britain has its Dagger Awards, in the United States there are the Edgars, and Ireland has added a crime category to its book awards. "I thought: 'Why aren't we recognising our authors?"

He began sounding out people in the book industry who all agreed that a New Zealand crime fiction award sounded like a great idea. All that was needed was someone to organise it. "I thought that someone might as well be me," Sisterson says. "I'm in a unique position because I've built up a network of contacts, so I thought why not use it?"

Sisterson convened a large panel of judges - seven in all from both here and overseas. He found sponsors, organised prizes and worked on ideas for a prizegiving ceremony. "It's been a full-on hobby," he says. "I haven't been playing many sports this year."

This year judges chose finalists Vanda Symons for Containment, Neil Cross for Burial and the victorious Alix Bosco for Cut & Run.

Sisterson's hope is that Tuesday's prizegiving was the first of many. "I want the Ngaio Marsh Awards to be solid and sustainable so we can carry on and build year after year. There've been some great crime books come out in the past year so I'm confident about its future and already thinking about judges. We'll make it even bigger next time," he promises.

- NZ Herald

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