It's a great time for local crime fiction. While established stars like J.P. Pomare, Paul Cleave and Ben Sanders continue to turn out splendid books, exciting new writers are appearing all the time; there are 60 books entered in this year's Ngaio Marsh awards.
These four new voices offer readers page-turning plots, memorable characters and thrills aplenty, each with a distinctive take on the genre. All make perfect company for these long winter nights.
Before You Knew My Name
by Jacqueline Bublitz
(Allen & Unwin, $33)
Jacqueline Bublitz's enthralling debut is this year's break-out smash, an unputdownable thriller that deals with some dark subject matter - abuse, trauma, loss and male-on-female violence - but feels life-affirming. This is no conventional whodunnit - the killer features later in the book - but Bublitz is more interested in shining a light on the victims of violence, not the "everyman behind … each sad, bad Jane Doe story."
Bublitz tells me she spent five months researching the novel in New York, even visiting a morgue.
"My aim was to explore the city as Ruby and Alice might have experienced it, so I rented a little studio on the Upper West Side and spent a lot of time lurking about the local parks, people-watching and looking for the creepiest corners.
"As for the morgue, I went down to the Chief Medical Examiner's office on 1st Ave. I had no writing credentials at the time, so all I could do was hang around in the lobby, watching people coming and going. Eventually, I asked the guy at the front desk if I could take some photos and received a very firm, 'No ma'am, you may not' and was asked to move on. So, it was basically this really awkward encounter that worked perfectly for my character Ruby, who had no real claim to be at the morgue, either."
She was "pretty method" when researching the book - even testing the murder weapon out on herself.
But the success of Before You Knew My Name is that it's many things - a mystery, a tale of female self-empowerment, a celebration of New York, a love story.
"I love that Walt Whitman line, 'I contain multitudes,'" she says.
"People are capable of experiencing many - often contradictory - emotions at once, which is something I wanted to explore, especially after my father died. His death taught me that joy and sorrow are dance partners, you know? So, I wanted to give Alice and Ruby terrible and wonderful experiences to navigate, and to show the lows and highs of trying to start your life over, because that felt the most realistic to me. And the richer Alice and Ruby's experiences in and of New York were, the more textured the novel became."
Once underway, the writing flowed.
"I never even really plotted it out. I just knew I wanted to explore the relationship between a murder victim and the woman who found her body, and I wanted to centre the victim in a way that challenged certain 'dead girl 'tropes.
"Ultimately, the story felt timely, but also timeless, in that I don't remember a time when I wasn't aware of gender-based violence, and its impacts, whether on people I knew, or real and fictional strangers."
The Girl in the Mirror
by Rose Carlyle
(Allen & Unwin, $33)
Rose Carlyle's sexy, twist-laden tale of twins and a $100 million inheritance was the kind of debut writers dream of, topping 2020's local bestseller lists, sold into multiple territories - and Hollywood snapping up the screen rights.
But, other than now being a full-time writer, she says success hasn't had a massive impact on her life.
"I'm still first and foremost a mum managing a family and a career, and I'm as busy as ever - but now I absolutely love my job.
"I started out imagining that I had just one reader, and I still imagine that when I'm writing. Reading is a solo and deeply personal activity, and I don't think the experience will be as good if the author has written for a crowd."
Carlyle came to writing later than many.
"It was good for me to start writing in my 40s. I might have struggled with the suddenness of the 'fame' if I had been younger — although authors are never truly famous because readers want the book, not the author."
She's also glad she had a chance to do other things before taking up the pen - she's a seasoned traveller and sailor, both skills informing The Girl in the Mirror's jet-setting narrative.
"Although my writing isn't autobiographical, it's helpful to have visited some far-flung locations and scraped through a few precarious situations."
If Carlyle, by any measure, has arrived, she still feels new to the writing business.
"I'm flattered and excited whenever I'm asked to review another writer's work, because I feel more like a fan than a fellow author."
But the increasing popularity of the genre doesn't surprise her.
"We lie cosily in bed and let ourselves fall into a fictional world in which danger lurks in the form of a ghastly villain. Usually, the villain is defeated by the cleverness and courage of the main character. Perhaps that reassures us that we could do the same? Or perhaps we enjoy closing the book and feeling grateful that nobody is trying to murder us.
"At its heart, The Girl in the Mirror explores the disconnect between how we appear to others and how we feel on the inside. These are themes with very wide appeal. Readers don't read for 'the crime'. They read for the whole experience offered by the novel."
by Clare Moleta
(Allen & Unwin $35)
While Clare Moleta is "surprised" at being described as an up-and-coming crime writer, it's a genre she loves, citing Tana French and Denise Mina as favourites.
"The crime writing I like is inventive and driven by absorbing characters, it explores ideas and it carries emotional weight too. I'd be very happy to be considered in that company. And it's true that there's a missing person at the heart of my book: although if there's a crime, it's on such a large scale that almost everyone is a victim and it's too late to blame anyone."
Moleta's astonishing debut, about a mother's desperate search for her daughter, is set in a dystopian future, a place reminiscent of Australia but with "geography, distance and time altered".
The first draft was written in eight months, as part of Moleta's MA in Pōneke, under the supervision of Emily Perkins.
"She told me early on that she liked the fact that I wasn't afraid to write about big things, and then kept telling me to keep going," recalls Moleta. "She let me find out everything I needed to by myself but she always asked the right questions or offered the right thing to read at the right time."
Moleta never considered Unsheltered a dystopian novel until people started telling her it was.
"I was focused on the human story – Li searching for her child – and the world that grew up around it was informed by real things that have preoccupied me in the past 20 years or so. In that sense, I don't even see the book as futuristic. There's almost nothing in it that isn't already happening – it's just that the dystopia isn't evenly distributed yet. And in the world of this book, climate change and forced migration are no longer issues that some people can selectively ignore."
In Li, Moleta has fashioned one of the most compelling characters to emerge in recent local fiction; a true life force, taciturn, fierce and uniquely heroic.
"One early reader described her as a cowboy, so maybe that's another way of framing her. She's definitely not a people-pleaser. I am a bit of a people-pleaser and I've had a lot of low-status jobs, so maybe she's my inner monologue …
"I didn't want motherhood to be the only thing there was to see about her, even though finding Matti is her whole focus. But I didn't know much else about her at the start. It turned out that she had to be pretty resourceful or she wasn't going to survive all the things I was throwing at her. I kept thinking, how do I get her out of this one? She's been described as tough a lot, which is completely fair, but I'm not sure that trait would get pointed out so much if she was a man. I think she just does what she has to."
Blood on Vines
by Madeleine Eskedahl
(Squabbling Sparrows Press, $34.95)
Readers who enjoy a more traditional type of crime novel will love Madeleine Eskedahl's self-published debut, set in the halcyon environs of Matakana wine country, where she lives part-time. Born in Sweden, Eskedahl arrived here in the early 90s, is married with two daughters and mixes writing with looking after three West Highland terriers.
Blood on Vines is the first in her Matakana Series, with the next, Rings on Water, well underway. But anyone expecting a sedate, cosy read will be jolted by the gruesome opening chapter, where a man is nailed in place and stabbed repeatedly.
"The grittier scenes … came relatively easy," she says, "which leaves people who know me aghast. I'm actually a kindhearted and gentle person."
She cites Arne Dahl, Stieg Larsson, Camilla Lackberg, and Anna Jansson as influences - the latter two also setting their thrillers in small country towns.
Apparently the local community is fine with her using their town as a setting for some pretty nasty goings-on and have proved to be key supporters of the novel.
"I wanted the book to have a real local feel, relatable for both locals and visitors. Anyone who has been to or through the area will recognise many of the places as the plot unfolds.
"I love the fact that [Matakana] has it all, a rich tapestry of local artisans, winemakers, creatives, and hard-working folks with a magical community spirit. This, combined with a strong sense of place, means the landscape itself becomes an important character.
"Even if it resides only in my head, I can picture places and situations, imagining the darker undercurrent swirling beneath the idyllic surface. This of course makes it a fantastic place to set a thriller series."
But what elevates Blood On Vines are the multi-dimensional and relatable characters, something she worked hard to achieve.
"They need to be real people, going through everyday lives and experiencing extraordinary circumstances. The plot came to me quite early, I knew what had to happen to create the juxtaposition between ordinary lives and the shocking situations that unfold."
That opening brutal murder of a winemaker in Martinborough has ripple effects further north and Eskedahl expertly ramps up the tension to an action-packed finale.