Photo credit: Kelly Ana Morey

Not (Yet) in Our Neighbourhood

Our local crime novelists are finding success overseas, but Rosabel Tan asks why more people aren’t reading them here?

 

Ask some New Zealand crime novelists how they got into it and you’ll encounter a strange refrain. ‘I didn’t set out to write crime,’ Paddy Richardson tells me.  ‘I actually wanted to be a horror writer,’ says Paul Cleave. ‘I’m not a crime writer,’ says another, who later asks for their interview to be stricken from the record because they don’t feel the label applies. It’s a hushed chorus of internalised shame.

And yet the numbers don’t add up: New Zealand crime writers are doing remarkably well. Christchurch-based Paul Cleave became an international bestseller after publishing his debut novel, The Cleaner, in 2006. After publishing his second novel the following year, he quit his job as a house renovator and started writing full-time. His books have since been translated into fifteen languages, and he’s found a wide readership in France, the United States and, in particular, Germany, where his books have sold more than half a million copies.

It’s also in Germany where Dunedin-based crime writers Paddy Richardson and Vanda Symon have found an audience, while 26-year-old Aucklander Ben Sanders has made his mark in the United States. After publishing three novels while completing an engineering degree at the University of Auckland, Sanders was offered a two-book publishing deal by an editor at Macmillan in New York. The condition: they had to be set over there. The first of these – American Blood – was published in 2016 and was optioned by Warner Brothers before a first draft was even completed.

It seems that ever since the worldwide reign of our original Queen of Crime, Dame Ngaio Marsh, New Zealand crime writers have continued to find success in the same places she did: everywhere but here. But with more than 30 new books by New Zealand crime writers published in 2015, why the relative local obscurity despite overseas success?

‘I think crime fiction is one of the last refuges of the cultural cringe,’ suggests Paul Thomas, whose novel Old School Tie (Moa Beckett, 1994) marked the beginning of a new generation of local crime writing. ‘It’s understandable up to a point. There’s not a lot of New Zealand crime fiction and not all of it is good; there’s a hell of a lot of international crime fiction, some of which is very good.’

And it’s the very good that sells. Despite the gloomy harbingers, the New Zealand book industry is in fairly good health. Data from Nielsen shows that 5.3 million books were sold last year, a rise of 9.3% from 2014. Within this, crime fiction maintained a decent sliver of the market, with every 7 in 100 books sold being a crime novel of some kind. Sounds impressive, but the majority – 85% – were from the UK.

It’s discouraging maths: of the 5.3 million books sold last year, 356,000 were crime novels, but only 5,400 were from New Zealand. And when you look at the top ten bestselling crime fiction titles ever sold in this country, only three authors figure – Stieg Larsson, Lee Child and Dan Brown. ‘It takes a big jump to select a book by an unknown New Zealand writer over a favourite famous one,’ remarks Paddy Richardson.

The problem is compounded by the genre’s success in transitioning to digital book sales. ‘That makes it more difficult to get noticed if you’re not a big name,’ says Kevin Chapman of Upstart Press, publisher of Paul Cleave and Paddy Richardson. ‘Discoverability is still the big issue on the web.’

The issue isn’t New Zealand subject matter, as readers are keen to read local books about true crime like Ian Wishart’s Arthur Allan Thomas: The Inside Story (2010), Lesley Elliott’s Sophie’s Legacy (2011) and Mike White’s Who Killed Scott Guy (2010). This fascination with true crime is a ‘good thing,’ says journalist Steve Braunias. ‘It’s wanting to know how your community operates.’ His latest book, The Scene of the Crime (2015, HarperCollins), explores twelve sometimes strange, sometimes brutal cases from New Zealand’s recent history.

For Braunias, writing creative nonfiction about crime has its own voyeuristic implications. ‘Why am I there, really? Why am I doing this?’ ( His theory is ‘appalling curiosity.’) ‘There’s a horrible thrill to it,’ he says, ‘which isn’t dissimilar in some ways to works of art. There’s a spectacle or truth going on, I think, about what people are really like.’

 

Photo credit: Kelly Ana Morey

Photo credit: Kelly Ana Morey

In 2010, frustrated by the low visibility of our crime fiction, former lawyer and journalist Craig Sisterson established the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel, now joined by a prize for Best First Novel. The Awards are held annually in association with Word Christchurch and are judged by a rotating panel of local and international figures. Recent judges have included Janet Rudolph, editor of the Mystery Readers Journal, and Icelandic writer Yrsa Sigurðardóttir.

Sisterson felt that New Zealand crime writers ‘didn’t seem to be getting much in the way of support or recognition, despite the quality of their writing and storytelling.’ He was reviewing crime novels for a number of outlets at the time – he now writes a popular blog called Crime Watch  – and was dismayed at the attitude to local writers. Although New Zealand crime writers were often writing to the same standard as their international counterparts, only the latter seemed to be getting promoted by booksellers and devoured by readers. The award, he hoped ‘would be a way to support, highlight, and celebrate the great crime writers we have in our country.’

Everyone I speak to – from crime writers to festival organisers to critics to editors – endorses the passion and impact of Sisterson’s tireless work, but some believe awards can only do so much.  ‘I can’t say I’ve noticed any [impact of winning the Ngaio Marsh Award],’ admits Paul Thomas, whose novel Death on Demand won in 2013. He doesn’t see this media and public indifference as unique to New Zealand. ‘When I won the Ned Kelly, the Australian crime-writing award, a leading light in Australian literary circles told me it would change my life. It didn’t.’

Part of this can be chalked up to low media visibility, but there’s something else, too – a reluctance to embrace local crime writers, however lauded they may be. ‘There are more and more talented New Zealand crime writers emerging,’ observes Paddy Richardson, ‘and eventually there’ll be more awareness and acceptance.’

That ‘acceptance’ refers not only to our cultural cringe but to the attitude of the local literary establishment towards the genre – something deeply felt by Ngaio Marsh herself.  She published more than 30 classic detective novels over seven decades, beginning with A Man Lay Dead in 1934. All of them featured Inspector Roderick Alleyn of the London Metropolitan Police. But only four of her books were set in New Zealand, and in her memoir, Black Beech and Honeydew, Marsh said it was only in England that her novels were ‘discussed as a tolerable form of reading by people whose opinion one valued.’

Marsh lived in England as a young woman and returned there many times, including in 1949: her publisher, Penguin, had just re-released ten of her novels with a print run of 100,000 each – a remarkable act of confidence that placed her alongside only a handful of writers, among them Agatha Christie, H. G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw. Back home, she complained, her ‘intellectual New Zealand friends tactfully avoid all mention of my published work and if they like me, do so, I cannot help but feel, in spite of it.’

This kind of snobbery persists, Sisterson contends, although it’s less from readers themselves, for whom ‘crime- and thriller-writing has long been a supremely popular form of storytelling’, or from publishers, booksellers and librarians either. Instead Sisterson suspects a prejudice ‘within some reviewers, academics, festival organisers, awards judges, and those holding the arts funding purse strings’. This, he thinks, reflects the attitude that ‘something that’s very popular can’t be as good as something appreciated by a smaller group – that the latter must be more discerning’; he also points to the high-art belief ‘that plot is an inferior aspect of writing’.

Paul Thomas cites the Man Booker Prize-winning novelist John Banville, who writes crime under the pseudonym Benjamin Black. ‘He talks about crime fiction having a ‘prior commitment’, by which I assume he means an obligation to respect the conventions of the genre. Martin Amis made the related point that nearly all crime fiction is about the same thing.’

Is this why so few crime writers are programmed at New Zealand’s big literary events? ‘A festival is a very particular thing,’ says Anne O’Brien, director of the Auckland Writers Festival, which saw over 60,000 attendees in 2015; the 2016 festival featured crime writers Paula Hawkins, Ben Sanders and Ian Austin. Some readers, she says, ‘don’t need – or want – to listen to the writers they like talk about their work. That’s not what they want to do. They want to read the work.’ This is especially true of forms like crime fiction that are typically more plot-driven, she believes, and don’t lend themselves to an in-depth hour-long conversation about craft.

 

The four finalists onstage at the 2012 Christchurch Writers Festival, where the third award was presented following the inaugural Great Crime Debate. Left to right: Vanda Symon, Neil Cross (winner for LUTHER: THE CALLING), Ben Sanders, Paul Cleave.

The four finalists onstage at the 2012 Christchurch Writers Festival, following the inaugural Great Crime Debate. Vanda Symon, Neil Cross (winner for Luther: The Calling), Ben Sanders, Paul Cleave. Photo credit: Word Christchurch.

The best crime fiction transcends the constraints of genre to investigate and expose contemporary society: it excavates humanity’s ugliest moments, explores extremes of power and ambition and desire and revenge, and at times (for example, in the case of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy) serves as powerful social commentary.

Jennifer Lawn, a Senior Lecturer in English and Media Studies at Massey University, argues there’s a clear critique of economic inequality running through the work of Paul Thomas, Donna Malane, Alix Bosco and (stretching ‘the definition of crime fiction into noir-ish literary fiction’) Charlotte Grimshaw. ‘The corporate elite in their novels are as morally defective as any mean-street low-life, and frequently more dangerous because they control more resources and get others to do their dirty work for them. The other side of the coin is a concern for the lives of vulnerable Kiwis who have ended up on the wrong side of the law or who are just struggling to get by.’

Vanda Symon agrees that crime fiction ‘often puts a spotlight on society and how life is for those in the fringes’ and ‘gives a platform to discuss anything and everything from politics, to inequality, to abuse of power, to marginalisation of groups of people, to violence and abuse against women, to organised crime.’ She cites Paddy Richardson’s psychological thriller Swimming in the Dark, as a complex interrogation of power imbalance and violence against women, in New Zealand and overseas. ‘The veneer of civility is very thin and crime fiction gives us a glimpse of what happens when that veneer is scratched.’

Like Marsh, Symon has created a serialised detective – but hers is a woman, Samantha Shephard. In Overkill (2007), The Ringmaster (2008), Containment (2009) and Bound (2011), Shephard emerges as a self-deprecating and accident-prone maverick navigating professional and domestic chaos. In Overkill, Shephard finds herself investigating the brutal murder of a young mother, who’s forced to take her own life in order to protect her baby. The twist: the victim’s husband also happens to be Shephard’s ex-lover. In Containment, she’s investigating a dead diver and grappling with the news that her boyfriend, a police officer, is thinking of transferring to her home office of Dunedin. When Shephard exploits her gender to get the results she needs, there’s no clichéd flirting: instead she’ll book a smear test in order to question a nurse about a case-in-progress.

Paul Thomas’ serial detective, Tito Ihaka, prefers a more solitary approach in Old School Tie (1994), Inside Dope (1995), Guerrilla Season (1996), Death on Demand (2012) and Fallout (2014).  Thomas’ Maori maverick is a big drinker with authority issues; he gets into fights, including with a colleague who makes a racist remark; and is an outsider in the Central Auckland station that seems more concerned with internal politics and fine wine.

The Ihaka novels present an Auckland that’s corrupt at an institutional and individual level. In Death on Demand, Ihaka’s investigation of what appears to be a standard hit-and-run reveals unexpected connections among Auckland’s elite, the criminal world and Ihaka’s own colleagues.

Police incompetence and corruption also rears its head in Cleave’s novels, set in his native Christchurch. Unlike Thomas or Symon, Cleave tends to write from the perspective of the murderer, blurring the line between detective and perpetrator to create complex psychological profiles. Joe, the killer in Cleave’s first novel, The Cleaner (2006), feels indignant when he realises the police have attributed seven murders to him when in fact he’s only done six. So begins a hunt for the copycat who’s tarnishing his good name. In The Killing Hour (2007), the narrator wakes to find himself covered in blood, only the blood’s not his and the women he was with the night before are no longer alive – but he doesn’t know what’s happened. And in Trust No One (2015), an ex-crime writer with Alzheimer’s starts confessing to murders that are simply the plots from his books. Or are they?

Our national style, perhaps, is a take on the hard-boiled tradition with local inflections. perspective. In her essay ‘New Zealand genre fiction since 1990’ (to be published in volume 12 of the Oxford History of the Novel), Jennifer Lawn characterises our detectives as self-deprecating figures who hardly ever work alone; the femme fatale is a notably absent figure in our crime fiction; and ‘guns are generally shunned in favour of more improvised methods of disabling the criminal, such as the frying pan, spade, bronze horse sculpture, can of aerosol fly spray, or strategically-inserted telephone aerial.’

As that list of weapons suggests, there’s an underbelly of dark humour that Lawn considers ‘one of the best qualities of New Zealand crime fiction.’ The lighter touch means our crime fiction isn’t extremely graphic. Even Paul Cleave, with his ‘large body count’ and ‘messy murders’ uses little gratuitous detail. Lawn points out that the villains of New Zealand crime fiction aren’t demonised, perhaps unsurprising in a country with no history of serial killers. ‘In most cases,’ she suggests, ‘there isn’t a lot of backstory setting out a crimogenic trauma, history or abuse or “primal scene” that turned the villain into a psychopath.’

But does our crime fiction have a particular New Zealand character? Sisterson isn’t sure. ‘There may be some distinctive things given our place in the world, our sense of humour, our landscapes and our relationship to them. But really it’s a growing choir of varied voices, with some harmonies, more than a single distinct voice.’ Paul Thomas is blunter. ‘I wouldn’t have thought we had [a distinctly New Zealand voice]. I think that tends to happen when one or two writers’ critical or commercial success inspires imitation.’

By success, of course, Thomas means here, in New Zealand. But perhaps it doesn’t make sense for crime writers to focus their attention locally, because of the small size of the local market. Sanders’ American Blood, for instance – which was originally optioned with Bradley Cooper attached to play the lead – had all its New Zealandisms scrubbed out. Sausages became hot dogs. Petrol became gas.

Further south, Wellington-based import Neil Cross has continued focusing his efforts overseas, whether as the writer of cult BBC crime show Luther and its associated trilogy (the first of which – Luther: The Calling – was published in 2011) or as the screenwriter for Guillermo del Toro’s Mama. The late Laurie Mantell, a leading New Zealand crime writer of the 80s, found a more receptive environment overseas as well. Although all six of her books were set in her home patch of suburban Wellington, she was only ever published in the UK and the US – by Victor Gollancz and Walker and Company respectively.

‘I’m curious to see whether we’ll have a tipping point,’ remarks Sisterson, ‘where we’ll have one or two crime writers break through in an even bigger way on the world stage, and then bring a lot of other Kiwi crime writers along with them as the world turns its attention our way.’ Perhaps this is what we need: for our biggest imports to be our own, and for our writers to leave in order to return.

Rosabel Tan is a writer and the founding editor of ‘The Pantograph Punch’.

 

NMA Best Crime Entrants 2016 full

Photo credit: Word Christchurch.

 

 

 

 

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