And the winner is…! The Ngaio Marsh Awards for Best Crime Novel and Best First Novel: WORD Christchurch Spring Festival 2020

This event was one of the big moments I'd been waiting for. The lineup of nominees in both categories was highly competitive this year and it was anyone's guess who would win.

On Saturday night, in the TSB Space at Tūranga, (fittingly All Hallow's Eve) Vanda Symon (author of the Sam Shepherd series) began proceedings for the tenth anniversary of the Award by thanking the 'amazing venue', Ngāi Tūāhuriri and WORD Christchurch's untiring organisers and volunteers.

Then the writers took the stage. 

Journalist Stephen Johnson read from his compelling first book Tugga's Mob, about the discovery of a diary thirty years after its writer, a young woman on her OE in Europe, is murdered.

Judy Williams, a Waikato farm girl, goes on the rite of passage many pursued in the 1980s to become 'citizens of the world' (Johnson); at a time when London, due to its multinational population, was the centre of the universe. But it all goes wrong when she is subjected to harassment by Tugga and his mates.

Next up was my absolute heroine, Renée (Ngāti Kahungunu) who identifies as lesbian feminist with socialist ideals.

Playwright, novelist and poet, Renée's first Crime Novel The wild card, (written at the age of 90!) was nominated for Best Novel.

The Wild Card

Spoiler alert: Renēe read a game-changing scene from The Wild Card. Its the bit where Ruby and Christina break back into 'The Home; an abusive orphanage which had punishment rooms, withheld and teased the hungry children with food, and may have been responsible for the death of young Ruby's only protector, teenage carer Betty. In this scene Ruby finds the kete she was left on the doorstep in, in a delightful update of the premise of 'The Importance of Being Earnest' ; the play that underpins the plot of The Wild Card. Ruby is an actor, and like Renee, a writer too, researching the history of the local Community Theatre. The Wild Card was also shortlisted in the NZSA Heritage Awards for Best Fiction.

Girl From the Tree House

Gudrun Frerichs, a psychologist, read from her first novel Girl from the tree house -  a mystery written from the point of view of a much-exploited young woman who lives with Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID); a condition where a person has multiple personalities. Frerichs struggled to convincingly portray this perspective for a long time, writing much non-fiction on the subject before feeling able to do this character justice. Of crime-writing she says, "You have to stack it up, add a suspect in murder, so it's not just psychology."

Frerichs read an exerpt from a multiple called Mikey: The Rule For A Good Treasure Hunt Is Keeping a Secret. Mikey Sees everything. He is the hider. 'There's too much chatting in the Tribe' (the multiples' name for their many selves) in his opinion.  Mikey uses Auntie's hiding places. He has hidden their  money from the cops.

Into the void is Christina O'Reilly's first novel. It establishes two great characters: Palmerston North detectives Archie and his sidekick Ben, who follow up on a man who has either walked out on his sick wife or vanished off the face of the earth. The plot thickens when his (pregnant!) girlfriend reports him missing too. 

Archie's forty-something character is humorous, feeling like an old man, with back pain and intolerance for his twenty-four-year-old colleague's enthusiastic bounding, door-slamming behaviour, which he sees as akin to a Labrador puppy. It left me wanting more.

Into the Void

Last up was Becky Manawatu, whose first book Auē has already won several awards this year, including the Ockham New Zealand Book Award for Best Novel. 


Becky, a reporter for The News (West Coast), read from the first chapter of Auē. After the death of their parents, older brother Taukiri drops young Ārama off at his 'new' home with Auntie Kat and Uncle Stu, in Kaikoura. Tauk attempts to make Ari feel at home by recreating his bedroom from the old one, piece by piece. Ari feels abandoned by the last member of his family, and will not speak. When he does, it is to swear, because there is no one left to care if he says, 'shithole.' Things go bad for both; Tauk hooks up with some really bad people, and Uncle Stu is not a friendly drunk. Ārama's only friend is tough farm girl Beth, who says, "You and your brother look so different,...but you have the same eyes.His are angry, yours are sad." I loved young Ari's way of relating his thoughts and feelings, especially putting plasters on all the unseen hurts. The judges noted, "Manawatu doesn’t use crime as a plot device but weaves it into the characters' lives."

Founder Craig Sisterson couldn't be there, but sent a message of thanks to the Marsh Family and the Ngaio Marsh Trust for making the awards possible. He stressed that their collective aim is to award excellence in crime writing which holds up a mirror to real issues.

And the winners were, ...drum roll...

Best First Novel: The Nancys!!

The Nancys

The Nancys, by R.W.R. McDonald, was described by judges as 'a clever hat tip to a well loved character; the (still popular) Nancy Drew".

Fearless (eleven-year-old) Tippy Chan, her 'masc for masc' Uncle Pike and his effeminate boyfriend Devon attempt to solve the grisly murder of Tippy's teacher. And win the fashion competition at the local A&P Show.Lol. 

A delicious book.

Best Novel: Auē by Becky Manawatu! This wonderful book just keeps surprising. Says Becky, "I didn’t think I was writing a crime novel..."

Special mention goes to Paul Cleave, whose bleak superb thriller, Whatever it Takes, was ultimately redemptive, said judges.

Whatever It Takes

I've seen award prizes tweaked a bit by others this festival; with the addition of Highly Commended. I'd love to see a 2nd and 3rd prize for each category in the Ngaio Marsh Awards - all the nominees were so good.

The great news is most of these writers are working on a second novel. Congratulations. You're all winners in my book.

WORD Christchurch

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