Surrender by Donna Malane
New Zealand Society of Authors, $20

When a cop arrives at the door of missing persons specialist Diane Rowe to tell her a body found that morning was someone she knew, she is stunned - like anyone would be. But this death, not to mention the cop, make this notification a little different. Not only is the latter her ex-husband, but the news itself leaves her anything but sad. The body found in Cuba St belongs to "Snow", a recidivist low-life Diane suspects brutally murdered her troubled younger sister Niki a year before.

So begins Surrender, the debut crime thriller from Wellington-based screenwriter and television producer Donna Malane (The Insider's Guide to Happiness, Until Proven Innocent, the David Dougherty story). In June, the manuscript for Surrender was chosen, from more than 500 entries, as the winner of the inaugural NZSA-Pindar Publishing Prize. Now, with its release this month, New Zealanders have the chance to discover what the judges found so compelling.

Told in first-person through Diane's eyes, Surrender is an impressive debut powered by a vivid and captivating narrative voice. While you'd perhaps expect great action, setting and description from someone used to the sight and sound world of television, Malane also does a terrific job in terms of what separates a novel from a screenplay - her main character's internal world. The story cracks along nicely too.

After discovering Snow was stabbed in the back with a boning knife, a manner of murder eerily similar to her sister's, Diane begins to question whether someone else was responsible for Niki's death. Though her freelance investigations into her sister's murder have already claimed as collateral damage her marriage and her role assisting the police, Diane sets out to uncover the truth, delving into the seedy underbelly of our capital city - a drug-fuelled world of strip clubs, sex workers, and plenty of hidden dangers.

At the same time (and perhaps in an effort to keep her away from their own investigations), the police contract Diane to put a name to a decapitated body found in Rimutaka State Forest. So she's left with plenty of truths to find, officially and unofficially. But as she stubbornly stays the course, Diane discovers there may have been more to her little sister than meets the eye, and that lifting the lid on her sibling's life has put her in grave danger.

Diane is an intriguing heroine: at times frustrating, at times engaging, at times humorous, always compelling. Readers get a very real sense of how she sees the world, and it's impossible not to feel for her as she gets herself into all sorts of strife trying to do the right thing, if in an unconventional way.

While Surrender would be worth reading as a character study of Diane alone, Malane also weaves in an absorbing mystery storyline, some well-evoked Wellington settings, and a great cast of well-drawn supporting characters. Even quite minor characters feel authentic, and the main cast all have some nice layers and depth. Like the narrative itself, they provide a few surprises and revelations, and keep the reader guessing until the end.

Surrender is the first adult novel from Malane but I hope there will be many more to come. And if this is the standard of storytelling uncovered by the NZSA-Pindar Publishing Prize, then the same sentiments apply there, too.

* To get the award-winning Surrender for only $10, half price, simply clip the voucher printed in the New Zealand Herald until October 16, 2010 and take it to a Whitcoulls or Borders store nationwide. Offer available while stocks last.

Craig Sisterson is an Auckland reviewer and one of the judges for the upcoming Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel.