Fiction: It's a crime wave

The best New Zealand crime fiction is as good as any and developing unique characters and a realistic sense of place can only improve matters. Below, Ben Sanders.
The best New Zealand crime fiction is as good as any and developing unique characters and a realistic sense of place can only improve matters. Below, Ben Sanders.

Local crime fiction is on the rise, reports Mark Broatch.

AUGUST HAS seen a flurry of activity in local crime fiction. Twenty-year-old Ben Sanders produced The Fallen, the first of a two-book deal and already in the bestseller lists, the pseudonymic Alix Bosco delivered a follow-up to Cut & Run, and Paul Thomas's 1990s' trio has been re-released as The Ihaka Trilogy, with a new novel in the works.

In the past year we've had new crime fiction from Paddy Richardson, Paul Cleave and Vanda Symon, as well as "inpats" Wellington-based Englishman Neil Cross and Dunedin-based Scot Liam McIlvanney. More than a dozen New Zealanders are now regularly writing crime-based thrillers.


Paul Henry interviewed Sanders on breakfast TV and suggested that New Zealanders should write more crime fiction, getting in a typical dig at more literary work. "Most people are writing stuff that has no market overseas at all." But the small torrent of new local titles out this year suggests that perhaps the problem is not so much we need to write more, but that we need to read more.

The Sunday Star-Times asked authors, fans, publishers and booksellers why there's been a small boom in the local crime fiction market.

Stephen Stratford, head of judges in the NZ Post Book Awards, a fiction editor and a long-time crime fan, suggests it is in part because good writers from outside crime such as Paddy Richardson are being attracted to the genre, which has strong characters, strong plot, sense of place, and "old-fashioned virtues that we don't always get from `literary' fiction". He says Ian Rankin, creator of Inspector Rebus and the patron saint of crime writers, has written about this at length.

Rankin says that because a detective can effectively go anywhere, the crime novel is "the perfect vehicle for a discussion of contemporary issues in the most unflinching terms... People are fascinated by the margins of the world, those places where society's rules break down". They learn how to deal with fear and the unknown, he says, and see that a sense of justice has been done.

Craig Sisterson, who runs the busy Kiwicrime blog, says crime fiction has become a broad canvas, so if you want a whodunnit, gore, escapism, great wordsmithery, psychology or forensics, there's a crime writer for you.

Richardson, whose Hunting Blind was one of the best-selling local crime novels this year, says she didn't consciously move into the genre. "I had the idea for [her 2008 thriller] A Year to Learn a Woman, set about writing it and when [Penguin NZ publishing director] Geoff Walker accepted the novel he made the comment I'd switched genres, which was mildly surprising to me." Richardson, who is currently writing a third crime novel, admits the fact that the books have been selling well, particularly overseas, is definitely a motivation to keep writing them.

Hunting Blind did best out of the NZ crime novels, coming in at 69th on the top titles in 2010 so far, according to Nielsen Bookscan. Lee Child topped the list, though he would have been almost certainly overtaken in total by Stieg Larsson, who occupied the next four places in various forms. We love crime fiction. In 2010, 369,000 crime and thriller titles were sold in this country. That's nearly one for each dozen of us.

But here's the bad news: while crime and thriller comprised 31.3% of fiction sales in 2010, up 30% in absolute numbers and four percentage points in share from the year before, local titles grabbed just 0.8% of the total crime and thriller market. That raw percentage suggest total sales of about 3500, says Nielsen. Exactly how to define what is a crime novel contributes to the confusion over whether such fiction sells. Maurice Gee, Charlotte Grimshaw, Alan Duff and Chad Taylor have written novels that could pass as crime – in fact, just ahead of Hunting Blind on the bestseller list was Ronald Hugh Morrieson's Came a Hot Friday from 1964.

There are many others who have written crime – Lindy Kelly in Nelson, Cat Connor in Upper Hutt, the West Coast's Trish McCormack. And ones that rise and disappear. Says Stratford: "I am still waiting for a new novel from Zirk van den Berg whose outstanding Nobody Dies came out in 2004." He says the review asked: "Is Zirk van den Berg the best thriller writer in New Zealand?" If so, van den Berg, an Auckland copywriter, has a lot more competition six years later. He told the Star-Times that he's been trying to get a crime novel published whose character he thought could carry through five or six books. He was pleased to hear Paul Thomas's fiction was being reissued. "By any standards in the world, those are fantastic books."

Who reads crime? Booksellers NZ chair Hamish Wright says the split between male and female book buyers is about even. "In my humble experience, I would say that the female reader does like her thriller to be slightly nasty and a more sinister thriller than the male reader. Also look at the women writers that do the scarier and harder thrillers – Karin Slaughter, Martina Cole, Tess Gerritsen, Val McDermid, Kathy Reichs, Patricia Cornwell etc." Certainly the potential crime reader market has grown thanks to Stieg Larsson's Lisbeth Salander books.

While questions are still raised about the quality of local crime fiction, resistance from readers, publishers, bookshops and authors is likely to have been responsible for any market hold-up. "New Zealand writers have actually got bolder with a gentle hand from publishers," says Wright.

Penguin's Walker calls the recent rise in titles a "maturing" of the market rather than a boom. His company is committed to its three crime writers – Symon, Bosco and Richardson – but is "open to other possibilities".

As no doubt all publishers will tell aspiring writers, you should be able to "write like the blazes, have a good sense of crackling plot, and rich, interesting characters".

Getting a good character, an unlikely detective or stereotype-upsetting troublemaker who can carry a writer through several books, seems to be key. Says Wright: "Rebus, Lisbeth Salander, Jack Reacher, Harry Bosch, etc are all characters that you would either like to be or not like to be and if you don't want to be like them then their damage/baggage appeals to your `bad side'." Walker thinks the genre has been elevated with the likes of Australian Peter Temple, winner of this year's Miles Franklin Literary Award and someone who has several "seriously colourful" characters, and for local writers "I would imagine that is the next step".

Location is a problem – the fact that New Zealand does have bizarre and unpleasant murders, but can't come close to the gun-laden, heartless sprawl of LA, the hard edges of Edinburgh or the steamy sleaze of Florida. Wellington writer Paul Thomas notes simply that New Zealand's cities "are not like Miami, or LA in the 30s". Carl Hiaasen was once asked how he came up with the "grotesque criminal insanity" in his books, says Thomas. His answer: "I read the local papers."

Others see our relative crimelessness as less of a problem. Says Hamish Wright: "I would like to see more NZ context. More stories that programmes like Outrageous Fortune have mined. I am sure we have them."

Regardless of how it's achieved, a sense of place is crucial, says Stratford. "Sherlock Holmes in foggy London town. Rebus in Edinburgh. Spenser in Boston. Warshawski in Chicago. Wyatt in Melbourne. [Vanda Symon's] Sam Shephard in Mataura and Dunedin. I don't believe that the location matters as long as it is intensely realistic, which allows the author to get away with all sorts of implausibilities in the action."

Harriet Allan, fiction publisher for Random House NZ, which publishes Cleave, sees "prejudice" against local fiction "from many book buyers that if it's local it can't be as good as if it's from overseas, which is nonsense".

Sanders, who is a generation or so below those publishing him, notes that overseas sales still help convince local readers. "As soon as there's international recognition, they'll abandon that idea [that local fiction is not as good] and think it's great, and latch on to it."

Growth will only be sustained if local readers start reading local authors, and more achieve overseas sales to keep their bank managers happy. Allan says crime publishing is still in its early stages here, and "average sales are barely viable".

Bookshops may have to do more too. Paul Cleave has sold half a million copies of his thrillers in Germany, says Sisterson, yet retailers in his hometown of Christchurch don't always stock his books. Stratford adds a technical note: we need more specialist editors of crime fiction to get local writing to its best.

More openness and support from the bigger local publishers has already greatly helped, says Sisterson.

"When the Ned Kelly Awards started in Australia in the mid-1990s, there were far fewer crime novelists there than there are now. A few years in they had about a dozen potential nominees in total; by 2009 there were more than 40 Australian crime novels published, including at least 15 new authors. Austria had a handful of writers in the 1990s, but now has around 100.

"Even before the Stieg Larsson juggernaut opened up the world's eyes to Swedish crime fiction, back in 2006 they produced 84 indigenous crime novels, from a population a little over twice our own. Things can change pretty quickly from a general attitude of `we don't have any/many good crime writers' to `look at all the great crime writers we have'."

The inaugural 2010 Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel will be presented after a discussion on crime fiction at Limes Room in the Christchurch Town Hall at 7pm on Friday, September 10. The finalists are Alix Bosco, Neil Cross and Vanda Symon.

Sunday Star Times