When you think of New Zealand literature, “crime” is not necessarily one of the first types of fiction that springs to mind. And yet, from the early 20th century writings of Ngaio Marsh to the modern era of thrillers by Paul Cleave, New Zealand authors have slowly chipped away at establishing crime as a credible – and lucrative – genre, as these authors have gathered large followings not just in Aotearoa, but also across the rest of the world. Here is an introduction to four of New Zealand’s finest:
1. Ngaio Marsh
Literally the “Dame” of the New Zealand crime novel, Christchurch born Ngaio Marsh published her first detective novel A Man Lay Dead – featuring the now famous character “Inspector Roderick Alleyn”- in 1934. From there Marsh became a prolific writer, publishing a further 31 crime novels. In 1949 Collins published 100,000 of each of the ten novels she had then written, putting Marsh on the map internationally. Ngaio Marsh became known as one of the “Queens of Crime”, alongside Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Margery Allingham, and was the only one of these authors who survived to publish into the 1980s.
Recommended Reading: Died in the Wool (1945) – One of Ngaio Marsh’s four novels set in New Zealand. In this novel, Inspector Alleyn is working for the New Zealand Police to solve the mystery of a dead body discovered in a bale of wool. An interesting time warp back to rural New Zealand during the World War 2 era, packed with New Zealand characters and colonialist viewpoints.
2. Paul Thomas
Paul Thomas’s first crime novel Old School Tie – subtitled A Riveting New Zealand Thriller – was published in 1994, and featured the first ever Māori Detective Sergeant, Tito Ihaka, who has his own rogue methods for catching criminals. The book was highly praised for its entertainment value and Thomas’s writing style, which is engaging and satirically comic, leading one reviewer to describe him as “Elmore Leonard on acid”. In 1996, Paul Thomas received the Australian Ned Kelly Award for Crime Writing for his next book, Inside Dope. This was followed by further instalments in the Ihaka series Guerrilla Season (1996), and his latest novel, Death on Demand (2012). In 2000, Paul Thomas adapted the Ihaka adventures for New Zealand television, for the TV movie “Ihaka: Blunt Instrument,” starring Temuera Morrison as Detective Ihaka.
Recommended Reading: Death on Demand (2012) – This novel depicts a wild ride through urban Auckland with a more than ever irreverent Tito Ihaka, as he tries to uncover the death of a woman at the hands of a hit-man. The novel is fast paced, full of unexpected twists and witty dialogue, and won the 2013 Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel.
3. Vanda Symon
Vanda Symon’s first novel Overkill was published in 2007. Vanda is the creator of the headstrong female crime-sleuth Sam Shephard, a “tough-talking Kiwi chick” who also features in Ringmaster (2008), and her other two novels Containment (2009) and Bound (2011). Symon has been praised for creating a female crime heroine “with whom the reader can really connect.” Vanda Symon, whose books have also been translated and published in Germany to much acclaim, was shortlisted for the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel in 2010 for Containment, and in 2012 for her newest novel The Faceless.
Recommended Reading: Bound (2011) – Set in Dunedin, the novel begins with the brutal murder of a potentially shady businessman, which has to be solved by Detective Sam Shephard. As the bodies pile up around her, Sam struggles with more than just the body count, and the action and suspense driving this plotline will not disappoint.
4. Paul Cleave
From his first novel, The Cleaner, published in 2006, Paul Cleave has become a prolific and internationally successful writer. The Cleaner was a bestseller, especially in Germany, where it was the top selling crime novel in 2007, and in the top ten of all fiction books. Since then, Cleave has written another 6 crime novels, all set in his native Christchurch. Cleave, who created the creepy serial-killer character “Joe Middleton” for The Cleaner and his latest novel, Joe Victim (2013), has been praised for his ability to tell a “gruesomely gripping story in clean, sharp prose, with authentically laconic dialogue and flashes of very dark humour.” Cleave was shortlisted for the Ned Kelly Award for Crime Writing for The Cleaner, and won the Ngaio Marsh Best Crime Novel Award in 2011 for his novel Blood Men. Paul Cleave has also just been shortlisted for the prestigious USA crime writing Edgar Award for Joe Victim.
Recommended Reading: Cemetery Lake (2009) – Private Investigator Theo Tate has more to contend with than the exhumation of a man suspected to have died of arsenic poisoning, as dead bodies start to float up en masse from the cemetery lake. Psychological tension and fast paced action are perfectly balanced in this exploration of the dark side of the “Garden City” Christchurch.