His books sell abroad, but not here. Paul Cleave tells Nicky Pellegrino why.

Although hundreds of thousands of his books have sold overseas, Christchurch writer Paul Cleave reckons here in New Zealand it's difficult to find a shop that will even stock them. So winning this year's Dame Ngaio Marsh Award last Sunday for his novel Blood Men (Random House, $36.99) was a rare and welcome piece of local recognition.

"I was really excited," Cleave tells me over the phone from his home town, "because I didn't expect to even make the shortlist. People seem to either love or hate my novels so I thought, statistically, with seven judges, three would be bound to hate it."

Blood Men is the story of Edward Hunter, an accountant whose world falls apart when his wife is shot dead in a bank raid. Destroyed by grief, he reconnects with his father - a notorious serial killer jailed when he was a boy - and finds the darkness that has always been inside him.

When I reviewed it last year I praised this book as "a real triumph of disturbing, bleak, bloody, compelling crime writing", and the judges agreed with me, with one saying: "Cleave tells a gruesomely gripping story in clean, sharp prose, with authentically laconic dialogue and flashes of very dark humour. The twists and turns of the fast-moving plot are often surprising but never illogical. This is world-class writing."


All of which makes it extra frustrating for Cleave that he can't find copies of the book in his local bookshop.

"I haven't seen a copy of my books in any Whitcoulls for two years and I can't tell you how upsetting that is after you've worked so hard. If they sell overseas, why not here?"

Cleave says he's been told his novels are too dark. "But I don't think they need to censor my books from the readers."

Internationally, though, he is on a roll. He's been signed up by one of Europe's top literary agents, Jane Gregory, who represents crime writers like Val McDermid, has sold the film rights to his début novel, The Cleaner, to a producer he admires and, so far, has been signed up for publication in 19 countries.

"Sometimes I think why should I care about doing well in New Zealand?" admits Cleave.

"The flipside is being in New York having lunch with my publishers, or in Paris talking to a movie producer. But this is my home country so of course I want to be proud of what I've achieved here. I had to sell my house and make a lot of sacrifices to become a writer and it sucks not to get taken seriously."

For the past five or six months Cleave has been in London but came home for the Dame Ngaio Marsh Awards ceremony partly because he admires what founder Craig Sisterson is doing to promote homegrown crime fiction. "He's done a lot more than anyone else for the genre and it's starting to get the recognition it deserves, thanks to him, so it was good to be there."

London, though, has been abuzz and Cleave's been loving the opportunity to rub shoulders with fellow crime writers like Val McDermid and Mark Billingham. He plans to continue setting his novels in Christchurch but he'll head back to Europe where he's appearing at book festivals in England, Turkey, France and Germany.

He's also started work on his seventh novel ... although it doesn't sound as if it's been too arduous so far. "I've been lying in a hammock by a pool in 32 degrees with a notebook jotting down all these ideas," laughs Cleave. "I think it's going to be good."