The author of nine novels, 14 works of non-fiction, four plays and numerous articles and essays, he was perhaps best known for Lovelock (nominated for the Booker Prize), Dance of the Peacocks and his psychological investigation of the Bain murders, The Mask of Sanity (1997).
He was awarded most of the major New Zealand writing prizes and fellowships and was a made a Knight Companion in 2010 for services to literature. At the time of his death, Sir James was working on a new book and had just delivered the final pages to his publisher, HarperCollins.
Breaking Ranks, the true story of three New Zealanders who defied convention and stood up for what they believed in, will be published in April.
Here author and New Zealand Herald book reviewer David Hill pays tribute to Sir James:
"I only ever spoke one word to author Sir James McNeish; the word was "sorry". I uttered it decades ago at Smith's Bookshop, the legendary and long-gone labyrinth in central Wellington where you found hunched bibliophiles turning pages in every corner.
I'd been posturing under-graduate style in the aisle till a figure courteously asked if he might pass. I glimpsed the fissured face and leonine tangle of hair.
"Was that James McNeish?" I gabbled to the proprietor. The proprietor nodded. "A singular man."
He was indeed. McNeish never fitted neatly into NZ's literary scene. He moved too fast from memoir to historical novel to creative non-fiction to column to biography to criminology study to be cosily classified.
And he was an outsider, happy - proud - "to stand apart". He believed you had to do so to retain your perspective and integrity in a small country. So there were times when he wasn't always known as well as he deserved and when his books didn't sell as well as they deserved.
McNeish has been called a writer's writer. He might have loathed the cliché, but it's true that in the vigour and clarity of his style, the craggy, confronting protagonists, crafted blending of fact and imagination, you see skills developed during a lifetime of work.
He'd known too many places to be content with one small Pacific country, though he could write about it and us with unsettling accuracy. I remember exclaiming enviously over As For the Godwits, his journal of years living near a remote west coast beach, and wondering "How does he know so much?"
His stories and settings frequently came from the far-off world - Britain, Italy and Germany - long before it became fashionable. That placed him on the outside, also. So did his protagonists, in spite of the commitment to social justice which powered so many of them and their creator and which should resonate everywhere. Sheep-stealer, driven Olympic athlete, murder accused and anti-Mafia reformer; they were Men Alone and you sensed McNeish in all of them.
There's isn't space to discuss his 25-plus books and innumerable shorter works, though if you haven't read Lovelock, you're missing out on one of the most penetrating deconstructions in NZ writing. Then there's Dance of the Peacocks, with its genuinely brilliant portraits of five also-brilliant young New Zealanders, and MacKenzie, where the anti-hero is as gaunt and uncompromising as the Central Otago landscape.
Honours and awards built up around James McNeish, culminating in the 2010 Prime Minister's Award for Literary Achievement, and a KNZM the following year. I suspect he'd have valued those which reflected the esteem of his peers - the Booker Prize nomination, Menton Fellowship and President of Honour for the NZ Society of Authors - just as highly.
I reviewed his penultimate book, Seelenbinder, for the NZ Herald earlier this year. It's the recreated biography of Germany's wrestling champion of the 1930s, tortured and beheaded for opposing Hitler.
I was bowled over by it; called it "a revelation" in my review. "Keep going, Sir Jim," I urged, and imagined him snorting at my presumption. He did. He delivered his final manuscript to his publisher just days before he died - and it's apparently in praise of outsiders, too. What a way to go: just what you'd expect from a singular man.
Sir James is survived by his wife, Lady Helen, and family.