Moments of madness: the winners of the Ngaio Marsh crime-writing awards

Kiwi crime writer Ray Berard.
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Kiwi crime writer Ray Berard.

Pio Morgan waits in an unlit alley across from the Black Horse Bar and Casino in Rotorua, gripping his rifle and sweating under his balaclava despite the winter night. Psyching himself up for the moment to come. Meanwhile 900 kilometres to the south in Christchurch, Jerry Grey is confessing to murder. He's an acclaimed crime writer, but all along he was basing his books on his own murderous moments. So why doesn't the young policewoman believe him? Why is she saying she's not a cop, but his daughter, and that he's in a care home?

Each character is teetering on the edge, in different ways and for different reasons, and each inspires a very fine local novel that won a Ngaio Marsh Award last night following the Great NZ Crime Debate at the WORD Christchurch Writers & Readers Festival.

READ MORE:  NZ crime fiction is the best: so why aren't we reading it?

Author Paul Cleave winning the 2015 Ngaio Marsh award.
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Author Paul Cleave winning the 2015 Ngaio Marsh award.

"Jerry is pretty much me if I was 49, had Alzheimer's, and thought I'd killed people," says Paul Cleave, who won a record third Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel for Trust No One, his complex and clever psychological thriller that distorts reality for characters and readers alike. "It was the toughest book I've written, and also the most fun. I got to do the whole 'write what you know' thing, and could put so much of me into Jerry. He's got my taste in music, my office furniture, and I put in the highs, lows, and frustrations of writing."

In what the Ngaio Marsh Award judging panel said was a particularly challenging year, with a very strong and incredibly varied shortlist, Trust No One was singled out as "a stunningly audacious example of the genre that functions as a literary hall of mirrors".

Like Cleave, Ray Berard, winner of the inaugural Ngaio Marsh Award for Best First Novel for Inside the Black Horse, also drew on personal experiences during the writing of his crime tale. After emigrating from Canada in the mid 1990s, Berard spent 15 years working in the racing industry, including a decade as a TAB Area Manager in the upper North Island. 

"The characters came out of my TAB diary," he explains. "I kept one in my work because I dealt with lots of legal issues, dozens of armed robberies over the years. At first it was just notes so that if questions got raised later or when it went to court I had a record. Then I started doing character studies. How events affected peoples' lives – my staff, witnesses, the police, even the criminals. Violent crime completely alters lives."

Berard, who now lives in Christchurch, recalls sitting with a university student who'd been working part-time when the East Tamaki TAB was robbed by a kid in a balaclava with a sawn-off rifle in 2002. The staff and customers were completely shaken up. 

"When I watched the CCTV with the police, right away I felt dread," says Berard. "The robber was obviously high. When he ran out he slammed headfirst into a plate glass window and bounced off like it was nothing. We could tell he was trying to fire his gun but it didn't go off for some reason. That robber was Ese Faleal'i. He would kill a young pizza worker in Pakuranga a couple of days later, then a bank teller in Mangere Bridge. My staff member was only lucky, that was all. He really suffered from that experience for a long time after."

Berard and Cleave are both interested in (and were praised by the judges for) the depth and humanity of their characters, in among the fast-paced crime storytelling. 

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"I wanted Jerry's story to be heartbreaking, and I think it is" admits Cleave. "Alzheimer's is a cruel, cruel disease. I came into the novel not really knowing anything about it, and what I've learned after writing this book is how scary it really is. I have this new understanding, sympathy, and fear of the disease." Given the obstacle he's facing, the fear and confusion, it's easy for readers to feel sympathy for Jerry, even as we wonder if he's actually a killer. 

In Trust No One, Cleave expertly intercuts past and present events, and first, third, and even second-person narrative, as Jerry writes a 'Madness Journal' to his future self. Surprisingly, given its structural complexity, Cleave didn't plot his winning novel out beforehand – rather he began with his 'what if?' scenario and went from there. "This was the toughest book I've written, it took me a year to recover from it – that's never happened before."

Writing Inside the Black Horse was also a tough slog for first-time novelist Berard, who achieved a lifelong dream a few decades after he fell in love with storytelling as a poor kid growing up on a farm in rural Quebec. "I did an outline of a story based on the aftermath of a kid robbing a bar in 2008, and started the first draft at the end of 2009. But other commitments, work, and one eleven-month journey down the wrong writing style meant it wasn't finished until 2014. I knew that it had to be as close to perfect as I could make it. Being in my fifties and unknown, I didn't feel I had the luxury of an average first book."

Berard credits Barbara and Chris Else with seeing the potential in his sprawling early draft – it was "more like War and Peace in Rotorua" – and helping him condense his tale of an armed robbery gone wrong into a taut thriller that retained depth of character and its threads of social commentary. Although he didn't initially see himself as a crime novelist, Berard is glad that's where he's now found his writing home. "Crime is such a general term," he explains. "You only have to look at the Ngaio Marsh Award finalists this year. What's great is every reader can find stories that appeal. Elmore Leonard's Swag to Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones are miles apart in style, but both fit the genre. That is why I love it."

Trust No One by Paul Cleave (Upstart Press, $34.99); Inside the Black Horse by Ray Berard (Mary Egan, $30)

 - Sunday Star Times

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