Ngaio Marsh, Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham and Dorothy Sayers: they were the queens of crime - crime writing, that is - who captured the imaginations of readers around the world earning themselves a lasting legacy.

Now a new group of New Zealand crime writers could be about to follow in their footsteps. Out of 11 finalists in our annual crime fiction writing awards, the Ngaio Marsh Awards, seven are women. Just one male writer, Nathan Blackwell, has been shortlisted for Best First Novel.

The genre attracts a largely female readership (about 80 per cent according to Goodreads) and international writers like Jane Harper, Gillian Flynn, Laura Lippman and Val McDermid (who heads to the University of Otago next year to take up a visiting professor role) are among its leading proponents.

An Atlantic piece, Why Men Pretend to Be Women to Sell Thrillers, also highlighted an intriguing turnaround: male writers using gender-neutral names (A.J. Finn, J.P. Delaney, Riley Sager) on their books and avoiding male or female pronouns in their bio. Things haven't got to that point locally, although Greg McGee used the pseudonym Alix Bosco on his novel Cut and Run, which won the first Ngaio in 2010.

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Best Novel finalist Stella Duffy told me earlier this year that writing crime fiction allows women to try to set things to rights.

UK based NZ crime writer Stella Duffy is a finalist for Best Novel at this year's Ngaio Marsh Awards.
UK based NZ crime writer Stella Duffy is a finalist for Best Novel at this year's Ngaio Marsh Awards.

"If a woman's going to be beaten up or killed it's more likely to be by her partner than a stranger and that's anywhere in the world," she says. "Even women who wouldn't call themselves feminists still feel scared walking down the street on a dark night, still feel uncertain being in a waiting room with a strange man. These things are daily for women ... and the thing about crime fiction is that there we can try to set it to rights.

"That's why I love the modern stuff because we're not trying to tie it up neatly at the end. Any crime from the 60s onwards says yes it's unfair and bad things happen to good people and good people do bad things — it's not cut and dried."

Best First Novel finalist Waikato-based Nikki Crutchley grew up reading Patricia Cornwell novels and says the best crime fiction goes beyond the murder or the inciting violent act. Her novel, Nothing Bad Happens Here, is a crime novel with a wonderful sense of place — a small town in the Coromandel.

"The characters are often relatable but the circumstances are not," she says. "There is a multitude of characters who are good and evil and everything in-between; there are frightening, life-and-death situations but also characters who we become emotionally invested in.

"It's the type of genre that allows you to escape from the world you know and enter a world you're still familiar with but filled with situations you would (hopefully) never find yourself in... it's the multi-faceted aspects of the genre that appeals to women."

Awards' convener Craig Sisterson says this year's finalists are a particularly rich and diverse group.

"Personally, I think that's great — we're just looking to celebrate the best of Kiwi crime, mystery, thriller, and suspense writing, but, of course, it's much better for our local genre if we have a diversity of voices and perspectives."

Sisterson says he'd be guessing as to what to put this down to but points to the "terrific female role models in terms of top quality contemporary #yeahnoir in recent years" — including past finalists like Vanda Symon, Paddy Richardson and Donna Malane.

"Each has multiple acclaimed crime novels under their belt and show aspiring and new authors a pathway. It's also been great to see a number of immigrant storytellers, from a variety of countries, feature in the awards over the years, and see a range of authors on this year's longlist from early 20s to early 80s in age."

Sisterson says while authors [Samuel Dashiell] Hammett and [Raymond] Chandler get plenty of kudos for their gritty, hardboiled PI tales, Patricia Highsmith (best known for her 1955 novel The Talented Mr. Ripley) was just as important and influential in bringing a dark, psychological take to the genre.

"And then Patricia Cornwell jolted everything and opened new storytelling angles, for books and then television, with her forensically-focused tales in the 1990s. The likes of P.D. James, Ruth Rendell, Val McDermid and Sara Paretsky are influential titans of the crime genre. And you'd have a bevy of contenders if you were to dub a new quartet as contemporary Queens of Crime: Gillian Flynn, Megan Abbott, Belinda Bauer (longlisted for the Man Booker), Yrsa Sigurdardottir and many more ... the top shelf of modern-day crime is packed with women writers."

This year, with such a broad range of books entered in the Ngaio Marsh Awards, there were plenty of books judges really enjoyed that didn't make the finalists lists.

"That's a good sign for our local storytelling community," says Sisterson. "I hope Kiwi readers will give 2018 Ngaio Marsh Awards a go. We've got lots of great writers ... Dame Ngaio would be really happy to see plenty of female Kiwi writers following in her footsteps, even if they're taking the genre in lots of directions beyond her classic-style murder mysteries."

The finalists for the 2018 Ngaio Marsh Awards are:

BEST CRIME NOVEL
• Marlborough Man by Alan Carter (Fremantle Press)
• See You in September by Charity Norman (Allen & Unwin)
• Tess by Kirsten McDougall (VUP)
• The Sound of Her Voice by Nathan Blackwell (Mary Egan Publishing)
• A Killer Harvest by Paul Cleave (Upstart Press)
• The Hidden Room by Stella Duffy (Virago)

BEST FIRST NOVEL
• The Floating Basin by Carolyn Hawes
• Broken Silence by Helen Vivienne Fletcher (HVF Publishing)
• All Our Secrets by Jennifer Lane (Rosa Mira Books)
• The Sound of Her Voice by Nathan Blackwell (Mary Egan Publishing)
• Nothing Bad Happens Here by Nikki Crutchley (Oak House Press)

Winners are announced at the WORD Christchurch Festival on Saturday, September 1.