Credit for NZ crime writers
New Zealand's best crime writing will be honoured this weekend, and the man behind the awards hopes they will help change Kiwi attitudes to home-grown whodunits, writes Naomi Arnold.
At Richmond Primary School in the 1980s, Craig Sisterson read the Hardy Boys and Agatha Christie; at Waimea Intermediate it was Nils-Olof Franzen; at Waimea College it was Patricia Cornwall and James Patterson.
Now the crime novel connoisseur has turned his love of the genre into a quest to get the best crime writers in New Zealand celebrated and read as widely as his early heroes.
Though Sisterson now works fulltime as a journalist in Auckland, he cherishes his Nelson roots. "I tell people I'm a Nelsonian who just doesn't live there at the moment," he says.
For the past two years the 32-year-old has moonlighted as a reviewer and blogger at Crime Watch (kiwicrime.blogspot.com). But as the website developed, he found that his regular conversations with crime writers, publishers and readers kept bringing up a nagging lack – there was no award to recognise good crime writing in this country.
"People would talk about how even really good crime novels from the past wouldn't get a look in at the [NZ Post] Book Awards, and we'd talk about how overseas it didn't matter if a crime novel didn't get nominated because they've got [Britain's] The Daggers," he says. Or Australia's Ned Kelly, the United States' Edgar, Scandinavia's Glass Key, and Canada's Arthur Ellis. But New Zealand was pretty much the only English-speaking country in the world that didn't have a crime fiction award.
"We got to the stage where everybody thought it would be a good idea to have an award but everyone was just waiting for someone to do it, and I guess I just got sick of waiting. It's the Nelson thing as well. You just kind of get out there and do stuff."
So he set up his own: the Ngaio Marsh Award for the best crime, mystery, or thriller novel by a New Zealand citizen or resident and published here during the previous year. Decided by a panel of local and international judges, the first was presented in November 2010.
Sisterson blames the cultural cringe for our tardiness. Although we're now happy seeing ourselves reflected in film, music, television programmes and literary works, that faith hadn't extended to crime fiction. And Sisterson believes it wasn't a question of it not being good enough, but one of exposure.
"The feedback we continually get [from the international judges of the award] is the best of the New Zealand stuff matches up with the stuff we buy in droves from overseas, and we shouldn't have any cultural cringe about our writing," he says. "It's good and we should pay attention to [it]."
He feels popular fiction is easy for "certain people" to look down their noses at "because they equate structure with formula, which isn't always true".
"Readers don't care. Readers read everything: romance and crime are the two biggest genres in the world. There's a reason for that."
This year's finalists are Paul Cleave's Blood Men, Neil Cross' Captured, Paddy Richardson's Hunting Blind and Alix Bosco's Slaughter Falls. Bosco, who wrote last year's Ngaio Marsh winner Cut and Run has just been outed as playwright Greg McGee.
As well as Bosco, Cross and another 2010 finalist Vanda Cross, a who's who of modern New Zealand crime writers might include Paul Thomas, Joan Druett, Ben Sanders and Donna Malane, many of whom sell well overseas. Cleave sells thousands in Germany but isn't well known at home. That may change as more attention generates more sales, more readers and encourages more writers. So perhaps all we needed was a champion, and Sisterson may have unintentionally become just that. He says the authors are "really stoked about it".
"Everyone's just hoping it'll carry on and grow to be bigger and better. We've had people suggest more events and crime writing festivals and hopefully we can grow those in the future."