Greg Fleming looks at the top contenders for this year's Ngaio Marsh crime fiction award
In my three years as one of the judges for the Ngaio Marsh awards (two as long-list judge, this year as one of the international judges), I've seen first-hand the growing strength and vitality of New Zealand crime fiction.
Indeed the Ngaios' 10th season is shaping up to be one of the strongest fields yet. The award's namesake, Dame Ngaio Marsh, is even nominated thanks to Stella Duffy's ingenious collaboration, completing one of the late thriller queen's unfinished manuscripts.
But Dame Fiona Kidman's This Mortal Boy , based on Auckland's 1950s Jukebox Killer case, has to be one of the favourites. The novel took out the fiction award at this year's Ockham Book Awards and, like another novel on the long list, Jen Shieff's The Vanishing Act , set in 1960s' Auckland, casts a questioning eye on moral prejudices in our not-too-distant past.
Another strong contender is a book that's already won Scottish Crime Novel of the Year - and is shortlisted for other overseas crime awards - Liam McIlvanney's late-60s Glasgow noir The Quaker , based on the real-life - and still unsolved - Bible John killings.
Other novels, like Nikki Crutchley's No One Can Hear You and Ben Sanders The Stakes , didn't get the attention they deserved when first published and, along with the excellent and internationally marketed debut Call Me Evie from young Bay of Plenty writer J.P. Pomare, make this year a tough one for the judges.
Awards' convener Craig Sisterson believes there are many talking points about this year's long list, chief among them the Dame vs Dame battle. Many of the "usual suspects", stalwarts of the Ngaios in its early years - writers like Paul Cleave, Vanda Symon, Paddy Richardson, Paul Thomas and Alix Bosco - are absent this year, so the field is wide open.
Then there's a newer development in that there are also three Young Adult novels in contention this year, by Brian Falkner, Tina Shaw and Ella West. Sisterson admits their inclusion presents judges with a challenge.
"When you're splitting hairs between quality stories, the connection to a story can be important. I have a lot of faith in our international judging panel though - they're all true book lovers as well as crime and thriller aficionados. I trust them to weigh up what makes a 'best novel' for them," he says.
"We've always had some really great children's and Young Adult authors in New Zealand, and I'm excited that some of them are choosing to write crime, mystery and thriller tales. We did ponder adding a YA/juvenile category to the awards this year because there were so many good YA entries [about a dozen] and may do so in future. I hope this will be the start of a trend rather than a one-off surge."
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He believes that the awards are helping overseas readers, reviewers, and publishers are "turn south" because they're gaining traction internationally.
"Since our first year back in 2010, we've always had some overseas exposure with the Ngaios, as we had international judges who were entrenched in their local crime writing communities, e.g. former Telegraph reviewer and award-winning comic crime writer Mike Ripley in the UK and Crime Writers Canada vice-president and mystery author Lou Allin.
"We're seeing more Kiwi crime writers appearing at overseas books festivals in recent years, which is terrific. Last year we had three Ngaio winners onstage together at Bloody Scotland [Paul Cleave, Fiona Sussman, and Liam McIlvanney] alongside Denise Mina, which was a pretty cool moment."
The long-list for the 2019 Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Novel is:
NO ONE CAN HEAR YOU by Nikki Crutchley (Oak House Press)
CASSIE CLARK: OUTLAW by Brian Falkner (OneTree House)
THIS MORTAL BOY by Fiona Kidman (Penguin)
MONEY IN THE MORGUE by Ngaio Marsh & Stella Duffy (HarperCollins)
THE QUAKER by Liam McIlvanney (HarperCollins)
CALL ME EVIE by J.P. Pomare (Hachette)
THE STAKES by Ben Sanders (Allen & Unwin)
MAKE A HARD FIST by Tina Shaw (OneTree House)
THE VANISHING ACT by Jen Shieff (Mary Egan Publishing)
RAIN FALL by Ella West (Allen & Unwin)
The long-list is being considered by a judging panel of crime, thriller and suspense writing experts from the United States, United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand. Finalists will be announced on Friday, August 2 - along with those for the Ngaio Marsh Awards for Best First Novel and Best Non-Fiction – with winners announced at WORD Christchurch in September.