Yeah! Noir!: Craig Sisterson and the Ngaio Marsh Awards

Craig Sisterson is a writer and reviewer, and a fan of great crime writing. He’s the force behind the Ngaio Marsh Awards celebrating New Zealand crime writing, starting the Awards in 2010 and now serving as the judging convenor for the prizes.

Read our interview with Craig where he talks Kiwi crime, #yeahnoir, the Ngaio Marsh Awards, and libraries.

This year, you can join in as Scorpio Books and WORD Christchurch present The Great Lit Quiz & Ngaio Marsh Awards!
To celebrate NZ Bookshop Day, put together a team of book enthusiasts for a quiz of crime novels and other genres! All tickets gain entry to the invitation-only Ngaio Marsh Awards cocktail party, where the winners will be announced. Hosted by crime writers Paul Cleave and Vanda Symon.
The Bone Line wine and nibbles provided.
Saturday, 28 October, 5.30pm Ngaio Marsh Awards; 7pm Great Lit Quiz
$80 per table (up to 5 players) by emailing rsvp@scorpiobooks.co.nz

Past and present Ngaio judges – Mike Ripley, Ayo Onatade, and Craig Sisterson. Image supplied.

Like the Ngaio Marsh Awards on Facebook

See our listing of previous winners and finalists:

Craig Sisterson

How did the idea for the Ngaio Marsh Awards come to you?

It was a culmination of a lot of little things. I’d started reading a lot while backpacking through Latin America for six months, picking up dozens of novels from hostel book exchanges and the like to pass the time on 24-hour bus rides in Argentina and Chile. The hostels tended to have plenty of ‘popular fiction’ (crime, romance, sci-fi, action thrillers etc), and I gravitated towards the crime novels, having loved mystery tales since I was a kid devouring The Hardy Boys adventures when I was at Richmond Primary School in Nelson.

Then when I was in Canada I went along to an Arthur Ellis Awards event at the Vancouver Public Library (a crime author panel where the finalists for their national crime writing awards were also announced). I met some really cool Canadian crime writers, including the great William Deverell, and had a really good chat with him afterwards about recognising and celebrating quality writing, and how the crime genre was much deeper nowadays than the stereotype of old-fashioned mysteries, potboilers, and airport thrillers.

As an aside, I spoke with the Canadians about the state of New Zealand crime writing (they were curious), and even lamented that other than Dame Ngaio and Paul Thomas’s series, and one-offs from the likes of Simon Snow, Nigel Latta, and Michael Laws, we didn’t seem to have as many crime writers as you’d expect for a country that has some really great writers (Oscar-nominated screenwriters, Man Booker listees, fabulous children’s authors, great longform journalists, etc). Or at least we didn’t have many ongoing series or crime writers putting out multiple books. It’s embarrassing to look back on that discussion now, because NZ does have a greater crime writing history than I knew about at that time, but perhaps the fact I was a keen reader who still wasn’t aware of that was telling too?

When I returned to New Zealand in October 2008, I popped into the Papatoetoe Library my first weekend to keep feeding my reading habit. By chance, a couple of crime novels on the recently returned shelf caught my eye. I picked them up, was taken by the backcover blurbs, and was surprised to read they were set in New Zealand: Cemetery Lake by Paul Cleave and The Ringmaster by Vanda Symon. Not only were they modern NZ crime novels, but each was from an author who’d published more than one novel!

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I read them both that weekend, before I started my new job at a legal magazine (I was a lawyer before my overseas adventures). Both were terrific, really top quality stuff. Great characters and writing, coupled with page-turning action and suspense. And both books were as good if not better than many of big-name international bestsellers I’d been reading on my Latin American journey.

So my thoughts about the state of NZ crime writing began to shift. Then my new boss asked if I’d read any good books lately, as a review for our magazine hadn’t come in before deadline. So I wrote reviews of Cleave and Symon’s books, and took off from there. Soon afterwards I was reviewing crime fiction for Australian magazine Good Reading, as well as some other publications. I reviewed a few dozen crime novels for them over the next year, including Kiwi authors like Cleave, Symon, Lindy Kelly, Neil Cross, and Paddy Richardson. The Kiwi crime novels stood up really well against the well-known international stuff, and I started thinking ‘why aren’t we talking about our crime writers more?’ On top of that, I realised that while Canada, Australia, the UK, the USA, and many other countries had crime writing awards, New Zealand didn’t. Our popular fiction writers were unlikely to be listed for the NZ Book Awards, but at least our romance, sci-fi and fantasy authors had their own associations and awards. So did our children’s authors.

Our crime writers did not. That kept niggling at me the more reviews and features I wrote about the genre, and when I raised the possibility of a New Zealand crime writing award with authors, publishers, reviewers, and others in the book industry, pretty much everyone thought it was a great idea in principle. There was a gap between principle and putting it into practice though. And in the end I just got to the ‘ah bugger it, I’ll just start them myself then’ stage. By then I had lots of contacts in New Zealand and overseas, and called on various people for advice. Crime Writers Canada and the Australian Crime Writers Association were very generous and shared with me how their awards started, evolved, and were run. I cherry-picked various things to create our own awards.

Founding judge Graham Beattie, 3x winner Paul Cleave, founder Craig Sisterson, 2012 winner Neil Cross, 3x finalist Ben Sanders, Ruth Todd, Australian crime writer Michael Robotham, and 3x finalist Vanda Symon. Image supplied.

How hard was it to set up a literary prize?

How long is a piece of string?, as my mother would say. It’s really hard to answer your question. Looking back it all seemed to go quite smoothly, though that could be my rose-tinted glasses! At the time there were plenty of bumps in the road, for sure, but we just rolled with the punches, adapted, and kept on going (how many cliches can I fit in a paragraph?). We were creating something new, so there was no blueprint (other than advice from overseas peers), so if something wasn’t working or went wrong, I just changed it.

My core concern was to make sure that the awards had a good level of credibility, even if we weren’t offering the winner a big amount of prize money. I just really wanted the awards to be sustainable, not a one-off, and to have some ‘heft’, for want of a better term.

That was achieved (I think) thanks to the really top-notch judges we’ve had from the beginning, and the support of WORD Christchurch. We have a large judging panel for the Best Crime Novel prize; seven judges from New Zealand and overseas. All are crime fiction experts, so we had people who were connoisseurs of the genre and read an awful lot, weighing up the quality of our local crime tales. In the first years we had the likes of legendary British reviewer Mike Ripley (who was the Daily Telegraph’s crime reviewer for 17 years), Vice President of Crime Writers Canada Lou Allin, and doyen of the Kiwi books scene Graham Beattie on the panel.

More recently Janet Rudolph (editor of Mystery Readers International), J Kingston Pierce of Kirkus reviews, top Australian crime reviewer Karen Chisholm, and award-winning Icelandic crime writer Yrsa Sigurdardottir have served on the judging panel.

These people may not be household names, but they are extremely highly regarded within the global crime writing world, and their involvement has given the Ngaios a lot of credibility on the global stage. They read a massive amount of crime fiction, from the biggest names to new authors and many in between, and when they say our Kiwi authors are world class, that carries a lot of weight.

The other main pillar of the Ngaios from the beginning was the involvement of what is now WORD Christchurch. I wanted a cool event for our first ever Ngaio Marsh Awards presentation in 2010, and Ruth Todd and Morrin Rout of the Christchurch Writers and Readers Festival really came to the party. They were so supportive, and planned a terrific event for the Saturday night of their festival, which even included the Court Jesters doing an improv murder mystery, before the inaugural winner would be announced. The festival also put up some prize money for the winner (adding to the handcrafted trophy created by sculptor Gina Ferguson and selection of Ngaio Marsh books donated by HarperCollins, Dame Ngaio’s publisher). As Dame Ngaio was a Cantabrian herself, it was a perfect fit.

CoverThen the September earthquakes struck, the festival was cancelled, and our event postponed. Not the greatest start! But Ruth and Morrin continued to be so supportive, even as they were dealing with all the property damage and other concerns. We had offers from other festivals to hold an event in other cities, but stuck with Christchurch. We had a cool one-off event in a temporary venue that November, where the pseudonymous Alix Bosco won the inaugural prize for Cut and Run (fittingly, an author whose identity was then a mystery won our first-ever Kiwi mystery writing prize).

I get a lot of credit for starting the awards, but in truth there have been so many people involved, and it is the mana of those people that have made the awards what it is. Along with our authors, judges, and the libraries who’ve come on board with our Murder in the Library series that started in 2015, I’d like to give a nod to Marianne Hargreaves and Rachael King of WORD Christchurch, who’ve done amazing things and had to deal with me flitting about all over the world and not being the easiest to work with. Because of all those great people it hasn’t seemed all that difficult to set up and run a literary prize, even if there have been difficult moments.

Paul Cleave wins the Ngaio Marsh Award, 2015. Image supplied.
Paul Cleave wins the Ngaio Marsh Award, 2015. Image supplied.

What is it about Aotearoa that make us bat above our weight in the crime writing stakes?

Hmm… I think we have some great writers, across all different styles of storytelling. So our talented crime writers are just part of that wider group of great authors. (Seriously, whatever type of stories take your fancy, you can find great Kiwi books; compelling, page-turning, thought-provoking tales. Give some of our authors a go, whatever genre you love.)

In terms of crime writing in particular, I think our Kiwi authors often have a willingness to push the boundaries of the genre. Check out Adam Christopher‘s Ray Electromatic series that’s pure 1960s LA noir, just with a robot detective, or some of our literary-crime crossovers like Tanya Moir’s The Legend of Winstone Blackhat and Fiona Sussman’s The last time we spoke, or Paul Cleave’s latest A killer harvest which you’d call magic realism if he was a literary author. And that’s just a few examples.

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Our authors certainly don’t feel constrained by the traditional tropes of the crime genre. Many of our Kiwi crime novels also have a great, subversive sense of humour, even the tales that are dark and serious. Many of our authors also have a good touch for landscapes, whether countryside or urban. But in the end, even if many people think of crime fiction as being primarily plot-focused, the best crime fiction often comes down to character – and our Kiwi authors have created some really terrific crime characters!

Can you suggest 3 titles that epitomise #yeahnoir for readers who haven’t tried Kiwi crime?

Just three? Sheesh, that’s tough. I’d probably give you a different answer depending on what day, or time of day, you asked me, but here goes. Oh, I’ll leave aside all our terrific Ngaio Marsh Awards winners, other than to say you can’t go wrong with picking a crime novel to try from Paul Cleave, Paul Thomas, Alix Bosco, Ray Berard, Neil Cross, and Liam McIlvanney.

Instead, I’m going to choose three other books that are really great, and very ‘Kiwi’ crime reads:

CoverBound Vanda Symon: the fourth tale in a really terrific series starring young Dunedin detective Sam Shephard. A successful businessman is murdered during a brutal home invasion, with his wife tied up and left to watch. Sam’s colleagues zero in on two local crims who’ve been on the police hit list for a while, but she’s not sure it’s so cut-and-dried. Sam is a terrific crime character, and the whole series is great, but I particularly like this instalment. Vanda Symon has a nice balance of plot, character, and setting, creating a page-turner with plenty of character depth. Sam has that maverick, trouble-with-superiors essence of crime fiction top cops like Harry Bosch (Michael Connelly) and John Rebus (Ian Rankin), but as a younger woman she layers in plenty of freshness too. There’s a great sense of humour in these books, and Sam is a fierce southern lass who’s her own woman.

CoverHunting Blind Paddy Richardson: like her fellow southern crime queen, Richardson has written several really terrific crime novels, but unlike Symon she has focused on standalones rather than series books. Hunting Blind is a great place to start, a chilling thriller which centres on Stephanie, a psychiatrist whose sister vanished from a lakeside picnic seventeen years ago, fracturing the family and community. Then a new patient tells an eerily similar story, causing Stephanie to reexamine her sister’s disappearance, and sending her on a dangerous and emotional journey around the South Island, searching for long-hidden answers. This is a really terrific novel that was a Ngaio’s finalist in 2011 and really wowed our international panel. Richardson is a master at crafting layered characters who resonate with the reader, and delivers a terrific flavour of the south.

The Sound of her voice Nathan Blackwell: a superb tale from a new author who’s recently joined the #yeahnoir ranks (the Twitter hashtag for NZ crime fiction created by Steph Soper of the NZ Book Council). Blackwell is the pseudonym for a former Auckland detective who was involved in covert operations and investigated very serious real-life crimes. Whoever he is, he’s certainly hit the ground running in the crime fiction world, with a belter of a debut. Detective Matt Buchanan is burnt out, worn down by a succession of tough cases, and haunted by the unsolved disappearance of a young girl years before. Some fresh leads give him hope, but also threaten to draw him across lines that shouldn’t be crossed. Blackwell showcases the courage of Kiwi crime writers in tackling tough issues, giving readers a dark, authentic insight into the stresses the police face.

What do you think about libraries?

In short, libraries are bloody awesome!

I was a sports-loving kid growing up in Nelson, but I also loved spending time in my school and local public library. I discovered so many wonderful authors and books thanks to the librarians, and they cemented my lifelong love of reading. Libraries are so vital to communities, providing information and entertainment, cultivating learning, bringing people together. They’re egalitarian and democratic, opening up doors for anyone regardless of your background or means. Yeah, I think they’re pretty cool.

More about Craig, Ngaio Marsh, and the Ngaio Marsh Awards

Ngaio Marsh photographed during the 1940s
Ngaio Marsh photographed during the 1940s : “Ngaio in the spotlight” CCL PhotoCD 17, IMG0038

Friend request: Social media mystery

Friend Request is the debut novel of Laura Marshall.

When I read the blurb about this book, I wanted to read it.
“Louise receives a Facebook friend request from Maria Weston.”
“Maria Weston wants to be friends.
But Maria Weston’s dead.
Isn’t she?”

Ohh, talk about goose bumps!

The novel follows Louise a woman with a troubled teenage past that has caught up with her. Can she face her past and come clean? She has a lot to lose, her son for one.

The narration is skilfully split between the present day (2016) and the past (1989) as we learn about what happened to Maria 25 years ago.

This psychological thriller has themes of social media, bullying, teenage & middle age angst and dealing with choices made in the past.

I found Louise realistic as a paranoid single Mum, but found her only reasonably likeable. I’m sure I would have found the book rather gripping if I had connected with Louise, but I ended up finding it rather flat with the ending slow and transparent.

I still think if you like psychological thrillers, like Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, or Lisa Jewell’s Then She Was Gone you should give it a try. Maybe you’ll connect with Louise and find it the gripping modern mystery it could be.

Friend request
by Laura Marshall
Published by Hachette New Zealand
ISBN: 9780751569155

Tania Cook
Outreach Library Assistant

Big Library Read – The Hundred Lies of Lizzie Lovett

Once Lost What Happened to Lizzie Lovett?  A mystery that Christchurch City Libraries borrowers can unravel by participating in the world’s largest global eBook reading club Big Library Read from OverDrive.

Chelsea Sedoti’s debut young adult novel, The Hundred Lies of Lizzie Lovett, has been selected as the featured title for millions of readers around the world to read at the same time beginning Thursday, October 12 and concluding October 26. This title is also available as an eAudiobook.

The Hundred Lies of Lizzie Lovett

Popular girl Lizzie Lovett’s disappearance is the only fascinating mystery her sleepy town has ever had.

Hawthorn has her own theory about Lizzie’s disappearance. And what better way to collect evidence than to immerse herself in Lizzie’s life? Like getting a job at the diner where Lizzie worked and hanging out with Lizzie’s boyfriend. After all, it’s not as if he killed her – or did he?

Told with a unique voice that is both hilarious and heart-wrenching, Hawthorn’s quest for proof may uncover the greatest truth is within herself.

The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley by Hannah Tinti

Samuel Hawley is a very violent man. I say this because he will still hurt someone if they in any way harm his adored 12 year old daughter Loo. But to be fair to the man, his extreme villainy and violence were conducted in his past. A past which becomes more and more important as the story progresses.

cover of The twelve lives of Samuel Hawley

Samuel and Loo have returned to Olympus, Massachusetts,  the home of Loo’s late mother.  They’re trialling settling in one place after a lifetime of changing motel rooms and schools for Loo.

Loo, it must be said, is one tough customer and deals with her problems a bit like her old man. She is aware her Grandmother lives in Olympus but is warned to have nothing to do with her by Samuel. This is the only  person apart from her Dad who knew her late Mum well and she is desperate to know more about her.

Loo finds herself going through the few things left of her Mother, a photo and toiletries, for clues of her Mum. These have been set up shrine-like,  by Samuel in every motel they have holed up in.  Its been a peripatetic lifestyle and has made Loo tough and self sufficient but she is still struggling with school, socialising and wanting to know more about her Mum. She is growing up and starting to question Samuel’s past. He is constantly aware that it could come back to haunt him, wants to stay and give Loo a steady life, but he can’t stop looking over his shoulder.

There is a lot of  going back and forth in time in this story.  How did Samuel end up with 12 bullet hole scars in his body? 12 Bullet holes and still alive?!  Some history!  Why does he carry a small armoury in his truck? Could his way of life as a young man and the death of her daughter be why Loo’s Grandmother is so determined to have nothing to do with them?

I found Samuel’s surviving 12 bullets slightly implausible.  A good read but not one that gripped me.

The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley
by Hannah Tinti
Published by Hachette New Zealand
ISBN: 9781472234360

Persons Unknown by Susie Steiner

I’m an avid reader of thrillers. I read both ‘stand-alone’ novels but also the increasingly popular format of a primary character that features in a series of books.

I am particularly keen – once I have found a character I can empathise with – to read them all, but the main proviso has to be that I read them in the correct order! So, it was with some trepidation that I read “Persons Unknown” as it quickly became apparent that I wasn’t starting off with a new series – Missing, Presumed had already been published featuring the main character Manon Bradshaw.

Most of the time though, even if you start out of sequence it doesn’t really matter as authors have a tendency to hark back to previous cases or anecdotal information that brings you up-to-date on past relationships and any prior connections through historical cases.

CoverI had just started the first chapter when serendipity arrived in the guise of a library borrower wanting a reserve placed on the same book. The customer started telling me what a great book the first one had been and how she was looking forward to receiving/reading this next one. Well, you can’t get a higher recommendation than that! Actually, you can, as when I went to check out the first book Missing, Presumed I found every copy was out on loan!

Persons Unknown has a contemporary UK setting with several well-defined characters investigating a murder in Cambridgeshire which in turn leads back to the ‘wheeling and dealing’, bribery and corruption of high finance in London with its attendant pimps, high-class prostitutes and assorted recreational drugs adding inducements to major players in these corrupt dealings.

As if all of the above were not intricately woven into the complicated plot, Susie Steiner also manages to integrate a number of social issues via her main protagonist, Manon, a middle-aged woman who has adopted a pre-teen black kid but still wants to experience motherhood first-hand and meet, if not Mr Right, then at least Mr ‘I’m happy to be with you whatever the circumstances’.

Manon’s professional and personal life implode when both her adopted son, Fly and her sister, Ellie, are found to have known the murder victim and become police suspects themselves.

This is very much a character-driven novel – Manon’s personal and professional problems, hopes and fears resonate with the reader and you want her to succeed — not only in solving the case but also salvaging her precarious relationship with Fly, who is experiencing racial and institutional injustices and will no doubt be defined by these hugely negative experiences.

After such a riveting read I’m now going to go back to when it all began a few years earlier…

Persons Unknown
by Susie Steiner
Published by HarperCollins New Zealand
ISBN: 978-0-00-812334-5

(The last person to call me) Sweet Pea (ended up dead) by C. J. Skuse

CoverEver thought of getting your own back on people who burst your bubble?

Forget the Bucket list, Rhiannon Lewis has a Kill List.

  1. The guy who squashes her groceries.
  2. The man that cuts her off every morning when she crosses the road.
  3. The colleague who takes credit for her work. And uses joke forms of her name.
  4. The creeps that proposition her on the way home from the pub/while walking her dog.
  5. The girl who bullied her at school.
  6. The girl who shagged her partner after the staff Christmas do.
  7. The café assistant who still hasn’t made your order while you shifted your car (I threw that one in).

Dexter meets Big Driver in this slightly sexy passive-aggressive tale of an unlikely vigilante killer. (Some call this genre Murder Porn.)

Rhiannon isn’t paranoid; she hates everybody. Well, everybody except her dog, Tink. Of course she has issues. The only survivor of a mass murderer, Rhiannon finds it hard to feel emotion. But she does feel a thrill when she gives a sexual predator a taste of his own medicine…

I love the subtitle. Related as Rhiannon’s diary, we read Sweet Pea as if we are voyeurs ourselves. Private and incriminating, it is a brutally honest account of all the things that push our buttons, and a liberating way of dealing with them – murder!

I don’t usually read mysteries, but this is both funny and brutal. Skuse, previously an author for children and young adults, lets it rip with similes to rip your sides – her wit alone will cut you to shreds.

This is one for the closet psychopath (I’m making a list of my own).

The tale of a murderous governess

Cover of Jane Steele: A confessionIf you loved the Brontë classic Jane Eyre but always wished Jane had been a bit more… murderous then Lyndsay Faye’s novel, Jane Steele: A confession may be just your glass of arsenic-laden brandy.

The novel follows another unfortunate 19th century orphan girl looking for her place in the world, but she’s a good deal “spunkier” and prone to violence than Miss Eyre. In fact, she’s rather more modern than Jane Eyre in a number of ways (sex, swearing, self-defense etc.)

Jane Steele’s life is a mirror to Eyre’s in many ways from attendance at an abominable boarding school to securing a place as governess in a home that harbours secrets. Although the deaths are always justified after a fashion, the bodies do start to pile up and a worryingly perceptive policeman may just be onto her.

Author Lyndsay Faye is a fan of Charlotte Brontë’s novel and in the historical afterword reveals that it was the author’s scathing rebuff to her critics in the preface to the second edition of Jane Eyre that partly inspired her to write the novel, in particular the quote, “Conventionality is not morality. Self-righteousness is not religion”.

And so she’s succeeded in creating an unconventional heroine imbued with more than a little “self-wrongedness”. Jane (Steele, that is), doubts herself, her worth and her goodness constantly but loves fiercely and loyally… much like that other Jane.

There’s a good deal of mystery in the story from Jane’s mystery inheritance to the traumatic past of her young charge and the plot gallops along like a runaway horse making it a fairly riveting page-turner, and… Reader, I devoured it.

So if ladies in corsets (who also carry knives in their skirts) sounds your thing then I’d highly recommend Jane Steele for your next wet weekend.

Further reading

Stella Duffy at the WORD Christchurch Autumn Season

Stella Duffy: writer, playwright, actor, improviser, founder and co-director of Fun Palaces, and general multi-tasker extraordinaire. How, asks interviewer Liz Grant, does she have the energy?

I like working, and I know I’m really lucky to be able to do it — my parents both left school at 14, had very hard working lives, the only time off my dad had was when he was shot down in World War II and became a POW — so when artists talk about how it’s such hard work, and they have to suffer, it makes me want to punch them. What’s hard work is raising seven children like my mother, or being a brilliant man with no opportunities like my dad. I work really hard at my job, but it’s not hard work. I know I’m fortunate to be able to do it.

Liz Grant and Stella Duffy. WORD Christchurch Autumn Season. The Piano. Monday 15 May 2017. Flickr 2017-05-15-IMG_0166

Family

Duffy’s family history is fascinating — like all families it is complex and messy. While researching she discovered a great-grandmother who had given birth in Holloway prison. The reason for her spell inside? Manslaughter; “I didn’t realise the baby was so ill,” she said in court, “and neither did my (12-year old) daughter.” She worked from 9pm-6am every night (“charring” is the occupation given, scare quotes intentional), providing for her children so that she could be home to get them ready for school, only to lose a child and be imprisoned while pregnant with the next. It’s a far cry from Downton Abbey, that’s for sure, and can be seen in the hard working lives of the families in Duffy’s London Lies Beneath.

“There’s no place like home”

Probably the most interesting for me was the talk of home/not home, how once you move away from the place you grew up you effectively lose it — always missing home, but when you visit it has changed without you. This really resonated as someone who grew up in a small town but now lives in a city, with family across New Zealand as well as far away in Europe, who has lived overseas and now feels the tug of home/not-home wherever I am.

Christchurch in particular has that double-layered effect, walking down streets that have changed beyond measure in only a few years. In cities such as London and Rome the juxtaposition of past and present is even more noticeable, everything built on and around and between the layers of its own history. Duffy loves being swallowed up by such a vast, full and vibrant city, being “a small fish in a very big pond”, keeping the taniwha in the Thames fed with Kiwi accents and secrets:

Cover of London Lies BeneathYou know what they say about the taniwha, don’t you, girl?

She shook her head.

He smiled as he said, It’s homesick, of course, but the Thames is too busy and it can’t get by the ships for fear of being seen and lauded and brought ashore for our pleasure again. It doesn’t like to be looked at, not directly. And it’s bigger, much bigger now, grown full on the secrets we tell to the water. That taniwha lives off our whispers, eating up the fears and tears we tell over the side of a bridge. It’s grown fat on what we hide from in the dark, beneath the bedclothes. There’s no getting away from it either, it will follow you along the Effra or the Neckinger as easy as it rides the tide from Tilbury to Teddington.

— London Lies Beneath, Stella Duffy

Ngaio Marsh

When I first read about Money in the Morgue I was under the impression that Duffy was simply finishing an already mostly-completed manuscript, but no: Dame Ngaio Marsh only left three sketchy chapters with some rough notes and no ideas of whodunnit, where it was done or how. Helpful!

Duffy talked a little about how to recreate the tone of Marsh’s writing without the less desirable -isms that permeate 30s era novels (how to make it seem as if it were written in that time but not of that time, if you see what I mean). The answer? Steal a few of Marsh’s writing tics. “Alleyn rubbed his nose.” “His ascetic monk’s face.” “His long, elegant fingers.” Perhaps we’ll see some of New Zealand’s “primordial landscape”, too. All jokes aside, Duffy is careful to avoid any sense of pastiche or mockery in her writing, being an avid admirer of Marsh’s work.

I look forward to reading Money in the Morgue when it’s published in May 2018, and in the meantime reading Duffy’s recent thriller, The Hidden Room. If you’re interested in learning more about the historical setting of London Lies Beneath, Duffy recommends Round About a Pound a Week, written in 1913 by the trade unionist, Fabian and feminist Maud Pember Reeves. If you’re new to Ngaio Marsh’s writing then she recommends starting with Died in the Wool, a country house mystery set on a high country sheep station in New Zealand.

Cover of The Hidden RoomCover of Round About a Pound a WeekCover of Died in the Wool

Fife-ing it up with Ian Rankin

Ian Rankin was born in Fife. I was born in Fife. Ian Rankin studied at Edinburgh University. I studied at Edinburgh University. Ian Rankin writes successful, suspenseful and gritty crime fiction. Nope, nothing. But I am most affirmatively a mahoosive fan-lassie for his thrillers set in the Athens of the North a.k.a. Edinburgh and featuring Mr Booze John Rebus.

Marcus Elliott and Ian Rankin
Marcus Elliott and Ian Rankin. WORD Christchurch Autumn Season. Charles Luney Auditorium, St Margaret’s College. Sunday 14 May 2017. Flickr 2017-05-14-IMG_0127

Last night Christchurch played host to Ian Rankin as the opening event of the WORD Christchurch Autumn Season and it was a full house at the Charles Luney Auditorium of St Margaret’s College. It was also a slightly more blokey audience than most book events attract, albeit it in a very metro, groomed and grizzled with grey fashion. Marcus Elliott, the Christchurch coroner, was asking the probing questions.

Rankin claims most crime writers would rather be rock stars than writers. Aged 12 he created a band called The Amoebas. With no musical ability himself – and no friends who actually wanted to be in a band – The Amoebas were entirely fictitious, but Rankin still managed to create world tour itineraries, lyrics for top 10 hits and music press interviews.

Writers are shy, nerdy kids who create worlds

he said, and while for most people the adult world draws a halt to childish imagination, for writers it keeps going. Rebus is his imaginary friend, but one who wouldn’t like Rankin in the real world. Rankin claimed Rebus would label him “a wishy-washy liberal”.

The first Rebus novel, Knot and Crosses is celebrating its 30th anniversary and Rankin said the character of Rebus leapt “fully formed” into his head. He didn’t entirely realise he was writing a crime novel and was a little perturbed to see what he thought was the next great Scottish novel appearing in the then “not sexy” crime section of his local bookstore.

He was aware early on he needed help with creating an authentic police world and wrote to the then Lothian Police to get some advice. He was also briefly a suspect in a missing person/murder case!

Asked if he counted policeman amongst his fans, Rankin said “weirdly yes”. Everyone likes a maverick and Rebus is his own man but also on the right side. His novels represent authentic investigations but with all the boring bits taken out, a streamlined version of a real investigation.

Ian Rankin
Ian Rankin: Writing Rebus. WORD Christchurch Autumn Season. Charles Luney Auditorium, St Margaret’s College. Sunday 14 May 2017. Flickr 2017-05-14-IMG_0140

Rankin added that keeping the series fresh wasn’t too challenging as Edinburgh, Scotland and Rebus had all changed. Rebus has retired, and after years of booze, fags and fried food, his body is starting to wind down. Rankin has recently gifted Rebus Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) but added he needs to work hard at remembering new story elements, for example he forgot he’d written in a pet dog for Rebus and then had to re-write and add the pooch in later!

Rankin said he likes to explore different social issues and each novel starts with a theme: immigration, people trafficking, xenophobia, banking crisis or business scam – but he is mindful that he also needs to create an exciting read. He says he doesn’t plan too much and sometimes the ending changes because the narrative knows better and he has to “trust to the muse”. All his books end before the criminal trial because, he says, he knows nothing about the Scottish criminal system and is too lazy to do the research.

Marcus Elliott asked about the TV versions of Rebus, and Rankin said there was early interest from the actor Leslie Grantham better known as Dirty Den of Eastenders’ fame. Later the BBC wanted the rather rotund Robbie Coltrane to play Rebus, and Rankin was like “Jesus you know he (Rebus) was in the SAS”! He recently got the rights back and would like to see them filmed in a more leisurely Scandi-style rather than the breakneck a-novel-condensed-to-an-hour speed of the ITV series. Writer, and fellow Fifer Gregory Burke is involved and the actor Ken Stott may even reprise his role.

There was time for a few questions from the audience, and it was the usual mixed bag with questions that aren’t questions and some sneaky self-aggrandisement. Rankin was asked about his love for the music of the late Jackie Leven, a prolific Scottish singer-songwriter, who he collaborated with on a CD and series of stage performances. He was also asked how he researches and makes authentic the criminals that appear in his fiction. He has spent time in prisons particularly through literacy in prison programmes, but was recently shocked when a fan described his recurring crime boss “Big Ger” Cafferty as a “big, huggable, loveable bear of a guy”. He fears he has perhaps over-identified with Big Ger and is going to make him horrible again.

The session started to wind up but Rankin still had time to apologise for Donald Trump being half-Scots and to warn us of the seething rage and stabby darkness carried inside romantic fiction writers. This was a witty and polished session with truck loads of well-executed anecdotes and crime fiction insights.

Ian Rankin signs book
Ian Rankin. Charles Luney Auditorium, St Margaret’s College. Sunday 14 May 2017. Flickr 2017-05-14-IMG_0150

The Pearl Thief

Cover of Code Name VerityElizabeth Wein has been one of my must-read authors since reading the beautiful punch in the gut that is Code Name Verity a few years ago. I’ve since tracked down the rest of her bibliography and can honestly say there isn’t a book she’s written that I haven’t loved.

This probably doesn’t make sense to you if you’re not a re-reader, but there are certain books that worm their way into your heart and you need to read them again in order to spend more time with your favourite characters. Books that make you grin foolishly or tear up on the bus. Books that make you thrust a copy into your friends’ hands and say: ‘Read this! It made me have feelings and I need you to read it so that we can have feelings together!’

Elizabeth Wein frequently provokes such outbursts from me. (Sorry, friends.) So I was very excited to read her latest novel The Pearl Thief. Technically it’s a prequel to Code Name Verity but it works well as a standalone.

Cover of The Pearl ThiefJulie arrives at her recently deceased grandfather’s estate in Scotland in 1938, having come home early from boarding school. No one’s around so she wanders down to the river in her brother’s kilt and an old jersey, enjoying the summer afternoon. She falls asleep tickling the trout… and then wakes up in hospital with a giant bump on her head and no memory of what happened.

This is only one of the mysteries she has to solve, as missing scholars, dead bodies and stolen river pearls start to pile up, along with a lot of unfounded local suspicion toward the Scottish Traveller community. Which is awkward as Julie is getting to be quite good friends with two Traveller siblings, Euan and Ellen. Will they figure out the real culprit before the Travellers are framed for the crime?

So many of my favourite things contained in one book: mystery, archaeology, librarians, and Julie running around the moors dressed as Davie Balfour from Kidnapped!, kissing the local girls. Sound like you? Reserve a copy of The Pearl Thief now and beat the rush! And if you also have feelings about Elizabeth Wein’s books and need to share, I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

The Pearl Thief
by Elizabeth Wein
Published by Disney-Hyperion
ISBN: 9781484717165

ARC provided by the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

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