New Zealand crime fiction is booming and I know this first hand.

As writer of the Herald's regular crime fiction column - and one of the judges for this year's Ngaio Marsh award, which celebrates the best NZ books in the genre - my desk has been buried under books for months.

The range of voices and styles on offer speak to the depth and quality of local talent. There's gritty New York noir in Marshall's Law from young international breakout writer Ben Sanders; political intrigue on the Auckland waterfront in Jonothan Cullinane's historical thriller Red Herring; a brutal home invasion in rural Auckland in Fiona Sussman's The Last Time We Spoke and South Island noir in newcomer Finn Bell's Dead Lemons and Pancake Money.

Others explore crime a world away. Debra Daley's The Revelations of Carey Ravine is set in London in the 1770s; Grant Nicol's A Place To Bury Strangers in Reykjavík and Brian Stoddart's A Strait's Settlement in 1920s Madras. Though a few of the entrants are full time writers, most are not - some are retired; there are journos, film-makers, a postman; a surgeon or two - and crime fiction is what they do in their spare time.

Advertisement

For some, their career provided perfect on-the-job training. Mark McGinn's Presumed Guilty draws on his courtroom experience. Ex-detective Simon Wyatt, whose debut The Student Body follows a murder investigation on a school trip to Piha and is in contention for best first novel, says he wouldn't be writing crime fiction if it weren't for his police background.

"It's shaped the person I have become and also shapes my writing. Because of this background, I want to share with readers my experience and skills as a serious crime investigator and give them an authentic experience."

Finn Bell - NZ crime writer - writes Southern Noir and has two novels in this year's awards.
Finn Bell - NZ crime writer - writes Southern Noir and has two novels in this year's awards.

SOUTHERN NOIR

Finn Bell might be the breakout success this year with both his 2016 books (his first) making the longlist. He wrote Dead Lemons and Pancake Money, available only as ebooks, simultaneously and even published them on the same day. They draw on his experiences working in night shelters, prisons and hospitals.

"After a while some of those things started following me home," he says. "Writing became a way of making sense of it. Initially I had no intention or plan beyond that. I write because it helps me."

Both books take place in the far South.

"Something about the South seeps into people if they stay here long enough and changes them (which I strongly recommend) then some of those people write books ... what the South has is isolation," Bell says. "You come south, and the further south you come the better it gets, and people become less civilised ... more themselves."

JUDGING ROUNDS

Advertisement

There were 40 books vying for two fiction categories this year, many of them self-published. This year also sees the introduction of an award for best non-fiction. Head judge Craig Sisterson, who convened the awards in 2010, says this year's entries show a growing depth and variety in the genre.

"Especially when you consider that many of the stalwarts of the first few years of the awards aren't in the running this year. In fact there's only one past finalist entered, Ben Sanders. So there's definitely plenty of fresh blood, which is great to see."

Sisterson has had to adapt the judging process due to the record growth in entries. "Now we have rounds of judging for the Best Crime Novel Award, with a committee of judges reading all the entries and forming the longlist, then the full international judging panel reading the longlist and select the finalists and winner."

He believes keeping a mix of New Zealand and international judges is important. All the judges are crime fiction experts who love the genre and have great insights."

CRIME DOESN'T PAY

Though the big names of the genre - Ian Rankin, Harlan Coben, Lee Child, Michael Connelly, Patricia Cornwell - sell millions of copies, a local author, without international representation, can struggle.

"I started writing full-time in 2014 when I got my contract with Macmillan in the US," says Sanders, who recently finished his sixth novel - a standalone called The Stakes - and was a finalist last year. His two US-set books American Blood and 2016's Marshall's Law earned rave reviews internationally and were bestsellers here.

"I'd intended to take six months off from my engineering work to write a book but film rights were sold to Warner Bros. in February 2014, and then a number of translation rights were sold too, and that meant I didn't have to go back to the day job."

But he found he missed the engineering and now works Monday-Tuesday as a structural engineer and Wednesday-Friday as a novelist. If it sounds like overnight success, it wasn't.

...my advice is boring: read a lot, practise a lot and then edit a lot; the backspace key should wear out first

"It took me 10 years to reach the point where I could write for a living. Of course, there are people who send off their debut novel and receive instant wealth and acclaim but that's almost like flipping the coin and landing it on its edge. Not to imply that literary success is all down to luck, but good fortune has a role to play, and many great books simply don't sell - if they're even published in the first place.

"A New Zealand fiction title is successful if it sells 5000 copies in print. The author's cut is around 10 per cent of recommended retail price (say $3 or $4 per copy). So the sums aren't consoling and considering GST is 15 per cent, Inland Revenue will make more money from the book than the author will.

"But if simply being published is sufficient payoff, my advice is boring: read a lot, practise a lot and then edit a lot; the backspace key should wear out first. Publishers and agents receive hundreds of proposals a year, so book samples shouldn't be submitted until they're spotless."

Sanders says the awards give crime writing a much-needed public profile. When pressed for advice to aspiring crime writers he advises they should only do it if they love the sentence-by-sentence grind.

"Language is being watered down by the junk-speak of social media and politics so every good sentence in a novel is balancing some instance of #nofilter, or 'robust plan going forward'. But that benefit aside, writing is not a safe commercial venture."

First-time NZ crime writer Jonothan Cullinane. Pic Ted Baghurst.
First-time NZ crime writer Jonothan Cullinane. Pic Ted Baghurst.

FIRST STRIKE

Jonothan Cullinane is one author who struck it lucky first time out. When he is not writing you'll find him working his day job, pounding the pavements of Mt Roskill, delivering mail.

His debut novel, the well-received Red Herring, which has made the longlist, is set amid the political turmoil of the 1951 waterfront lock-out. It was written as part of a creative writing course at the University of Auckland. Cullinane says he chose the crime genre because it has defined rules about characterisation, structure and atmosphere.

"The better writers can afford to break them but for a first-time novelist they offer a template that makes the job easier. Plus I like reading crime fiction and one of the things they tell you in How-to-Write class is write the novel you want to read."

He's now working on Red Herring's sequel Yellow Peril using the same characters and setting but with a different inciting incident. He originally planned to self-publish Red Herring and would have been delighted to sell 50 copies to friends.

"I also privately imagined a publisher stumbling across a copy and realising it as a work of staggering genius and six months later, I'd be bashfully accepting the Booker Prize. I went to a seminar on self-publishing run by Geoff Walker at the Readers' Festival one year. Geoff read Red Herring and liked it and recommended it to HarperCollins who made me an offer to publish - so it couldn't have gone better ... apart from the Booker Prize."

He cites Sanders and three-time Ngaio Marsh winner, Christchurch-based Paul Cleave (still better known overseas than here), who took out the 2016 award for Trust No-one - as examples of local successes.

"They show that if you get it right you can make a living from writing, which is the Promised Land."

The 2017 long list for Ngaio Marsh award
●Dead Lemons, by Finn Bell
●Pancake Money, by Finn Bell
●Spare Me The Truth, by C.J. Carver (Bonnier Zaffre)
●Red Herring, by Jonothan Cullinane (HarperCollins)
●The Revelations of Carey Ravine, by Debra Daley (Quercus)
●The Three Deaths of Magdalene Lynton, by Katherine Hayton
●Presumed Guilty, by Mark McGinn
●Marshall's Law, by Ben Sanders (Allen & Unwin)
●A Strait's Settlement, by Brian Stoddart (Crime Wave Press)
●The Last Time We Spoke, by Fiona Sussman (Allison & Busby)

The finalists will be announced in August, along with the finalists for the best first novel and best true-crime categories. The winners, who each receive a trophy and cash prize, will be announced at a WORD Christchurch event in October.
Who was Dame Ngaio Marsh?

She was a New Zealand-born crime writer best known for her 32 detective novels published between 1934 and 1982. Along with Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham and Agatha Christie, Dame Ngaio is often described as one of the four original "Queens of Crime". Many of her novels have an English village or country house setting.