Wellington historian Paul Diamond is going to Berlin to write the story of a Whanganui mayor who shot a blackmailer, was exiled from New Zealand and then killed in a Berlin riot.

Mr Diamond has been awarded Creative New Zealand's Berlin Writer's Residency. He gets a flat in Germany's capital city and a living allowance for 11 months, starting in November. He's excited by the opportunity and says Berlin is a fascinating place.

"It's got a really amazing creative energy and such an interesting history, and things are changing so fast."

Currently the Māori curator at the Alexander Turnbull Library, Mr Diamond has been researching the story of Whanganui's early 1900s mayor Charles Mackay since he and fellow Radio New Zealand staffer Prue Langbein were researching a radio programme about it.

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Mr Mackay was the mayor of Whanganui for 13 years, in two spells between 1906 and 1920. He was a brilliant, controversial and energetic man.

In 1920, in his upstairs law office in Ridgway St, he shot returned soldier Walter D'Arcy Cresswell, who was threatening to expose him as a homosexual if he did not resign. It later emerged that Mr Cresswell was homosexual too.

The blackmailer was slightly wounded and Mr Mackay pleaded guilty to a charge of attempted murder. People were uncomfortable talking about sex at that time, especially homosexual sex.

"Up until then they used words like 'sodomy', 'perverts' and 'buggery'. It was the first time that word that we are more familiar with was actually used," Mr Diamond said.

In court Mr Mackay's GP produced evidence he had sought treatment to "cure" himself in 1914.

Mr Diamond thinks this involved hynosis.

Mr Mackay was sentenced to 15 years' hard labour and served six. He was released on condition he left the country. His sister helped him move to London in 1926.

Meanwhile his wife had divorced him and she and her three daughters returned to her previous surname of Duncan. Mr Mackay's portrait was removed from the council office, his name sanded off the foundation stone of the Sarjeant Gallery and Mackay St was renamed Jellicoe St.

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The former mayor was not mentioned in Whanganui histories for the next 50 years, but his name on the foundation stone and his image in the council chamber have since been replaced.

The shooting had a profound effect on other gay men in 1920.

"Lots left the country because of it. It was just generally easier for them in London and Berlin."

In London Mr Mackay established an advertising agency, and Mr Diamond has found its address. He also discovered Mr Cresswell was in London for some of that time.

In 1928 Mr Mackay moved to Berlin, where he taught English and worked as a journalist for a British paper. He was shot there by police in 1929, while covering a riot between communists and police. There was a big investigation in Berlin after that shooting.

Mr Diamond is hoping to follow up new leads during his residency, and said he had to complete the book for late historian Wendy Pettigrew, one of many Whanganui people who had helped him. He's hoping to get back here before he leaves for Berlin.

He's written two other books and has another coming out in August, about the way Māori were represented in cartoons between 1930 and 1990.

The provisional title for his next book is Death in Berlin: searching for Charles Mackay. It will be creative nonfiction, bringing in himself and his long search for clues.

"It will go from Berlin to Whanganui to London to Berlin. It's such a strange story that circles between the three countries."