The much-awaited Ngaio Marsh Awards for Crime Writing are happening next Friday 24 November and it's been worth the wait.
This year the awards will be hosted by Vanda Symon, who deserves an award this year herself for her part in The Traitors, a closed-room reality murder show on TVNZ. Not to mention her damn good story featuring well-loved character Sam Sheppard, Expectant.
This year's shortlist for Best Crime Novel is exciting. The books all have very different approaches and different angles. But they all have one thing in common. They're fast-moving, exciting, thought-provoking; and something of an upset as some strong contenders didn't make the shortlist (D.V. Bishop, Paul Cleave, Nikki Crutchley, J.P. Pomare).
And the nominees are (drum roll):
Michael Bennett: Better the Blood
The mauri of the mountain is harmed again. ...Violence has returned to our maunga. Another life taken here.
Michael Bennett's first novel, Better the Blood, is up for Best Crime Novel and Best First Novel. He could well win both categories, gaining a hat-trick to add to a non-fiction Ngaio Marsh Award in 2017 for his first book, In Dark Places, the story of Teina Pora.
Better the Blood is powerful and confronting. Bennett uses the vehicle of a thrilling police procedural to tell the heart-breaking story of abhorrent acts of colonisation in Aotearoa's history. The story's plot operates around the historic execution and violation of a revered rangatira, and the requisition of beloved iwi land on a headland in Auckland for a military base.
It's the story of utu taken too far; becoming rānaki - a perpetuation of violence carried out on the descendants of soldiers who executed the Kaumatua on his own land. Better the Blood is a clever weaving of history and the modern day, conveying the pain of the people that must be redressed, in order to heal.
Bennett has created engaging, believable characters in this story, in particular Sergeant Hana Westerman, and her daughter Addison, who are caught between two worlds and struggle to accept the policy of police in the case, when pitted against their own people. I'd like to see more of Hana.
Simon Lendrum: The Slow Roll
Nothing is simple for O'Malley.
The Slow Roll's elusive detective is a gambler. And a soft touch. Roy O'Malley's interest in detective work lies in a weakness for helping people, and he does it for love.
Lioto Tupuola is no exception. Playing on O'Malley's sympathies, after several years of devastating loss Tupuola begs for help to track down the last family member left in his care: his youngest daughter, who has taken off. Just a case of a teen runaway?
There's a lot more to this case than meets the eye, of course. When another gambler dies, Lendrum draws the reader into a page-turning world of drug-dealing, money-laundering, murder and gangs. It makes for an intriguing story. Staged in Auckland and revolving around the Sky Tower Casino, it's dialogue-rich and convincing.
Lendrum's developed his characters well. Claire, Roy's tattooed girlfriend, brings humour as she shows up Roy's sleuthing skills, getting some great lines in the process.
The Slow Roll is Simon Lendrum's first novel; the author writes with confidence and it shows. The Slow Roll is also in the running for Best First Novel.
Charity Norman: Remember Me
The Ruahines had been painted with a wet sponge onto a chalky sky. Strands of cloud had wrapped themselves around the peaks, thin and inconsequential, like broken cobwebs.
Charity Norman writes very human stories, examining what motivates people, and events that can change behaviour.
The landscape dominates in Remember Me; the moving story of a young woman missing for more than twenty-five years on a maunga - the Ruahine Range - and her connection to a man with dementia. It's as beautiful and deadly as New Zealand landscapes can be.
It's a spiritual tale, too: a bird motif runs through the story, representing portents from the spirit world. The name Rua-hine, meaning wise woman. The Ruahine Range is almost a character in the novel.
Norman get her readers lost on the maunga too: was Leah Parata's death while researching the Powelliphanta snail an accident, or foul play?
Felix has been a master of disguise - hiding an Alzheimer's diagnosis for years. When his daughter Emily comes home to Arapito to care for him, she finds evidence that suggests Felix knows something about Leah's death. Will she justify it, and protect her ailing father? Or reveal what she knows, to help find Leah's fate once and for all?
Norman not only tells a gripping and conflicting story, her language is beautiful, and her empathy is apparent. The author has had experience with a close family member living with dementia. Remember Me was chosen this year as the Libby/Overdrive title for Together We Read.
Renee: Blood Matters
I was so pleased to see, when I began reading Renee's Blood Matters, that it revisits Porohiwi, the scene of the crime in The Wild Card; the playwright's first crime novel.
The setting played so large a part in her first book: a small Upper Hutt town where the wild river meets the 'indifferent' sea. And character Puti is related to Ana, from the first book.
Many of the characters, and the victim, are connected by blood. They're whānau. And whānau look out for each other, beyond family feuds, don't they? So why has Puti's estranged grandfather been murdered, left pointedly wearing a Judas mask from his collection on the wall?
Renee doesn't hold back on the blood and guts, they're all over the floor. And she spares no mercy for privileged racism, or fools either.
She even lampoons some of her favourite early mystery writers; Puti, the proprietor of a second-hand book shop, suggests that readers ignore their racist, classist attitudes in favour of a 'comfort read' ; drawing a parallel between Agatha Christie's response to the influenza pandemic and recent times. Even NZ's own Dame Ngaio Marsh isn't spared: "once you got inside that adoration of the British upper classes and the rather stiff language, (she) was good on theatre and puzzles."
It's a great new move for a writer, now 94 (!), previously known for her plays. I hope to see more stories from Porohiwi.
Ben Sanders: Exit .45
From the first pages of Ben Sanders' Exit .45 readers are thrown into the action of this story, packed with tough broads, gangsters, car chases, corruption and abduction.
The back story of his characters is revealed through fast moving events and sharp dialogue. Ex-cop Marshall feels compelled to find the killer of his old friend, for the sake of his wife and family. And he was there. Saw it happen.
The third installment of the Marshall Grade series, which begins with American Blood.
Marshall, an ex-cop, is a bit OCD like the popular character Monk from books and TV. Marshall's cases are more gruesome, though, and he lives in the moment, risking his life as if it isn't worth much. He's rough and sexy too, finding time for more than one liason while trying to solve the disappearance of his friend Ray Vialoux, who's gotten entangled with Mob gambling, and maybe the disappearance of a mob boss's wife.
Has Vialoux been offed by the mob? Readers of Lee Child and James Patterson would enjoy this one; set in New York with a hint of bent cops and gangsters. Sanders is good with language, lightening a dark story with quick, cutting wisecracks.
Fiona Sussman: The Doctor's Wife
Live the life you aspire to achieve.
From a mobster's wife to the Doctor's Wife, Fiona Sussman presents a diabolical police procedural/psychological thriller in her fourth book.
Three lifelong friends. Austin and Tibbie have been married for over twenty four years, their friend Carmen alongside them all the time. Carmen's husband Stan has known them for almost the same amount of years. Until their picture perfectly shaped lives together fall apart.
Carmen is diagnosed with a brain tumour. Tibbie falls to her death from a cliff. The evidence points to Carmen: the tumour triggering anger and erratic behaviour. Yet husband Stan refuses to believe Carmen capable of hurting her best friend.
When the star witness, Eliot, an autistic boy with a photographic memory suffers an overdose of insulin, Tibbie's death takes a turn towards foul play. Will Eliot wake up?
The Doctor's Wife is Sussman's first foray into mystery writing, although an earlier novel, The Last Time We Spoke examines the aftermath of a home invasion on both the perpetrator and the victim. Markedly different characters in The Doctor's Wife are upbeat Aucklanders, yet Sussman's this book also cross-examines each character's point of view before becoming dominantly that of the investigating officer, Ramesh Bandera.
Sussman, a doctor herself before writing, mirrors the unravelling of her characters' lives in her setting: first Carmen and Stan's home, then Carmen's appearance. Little clues found by Tibbie suggest their marriage may not have been reflecting its outward perfection. Sussman's medical background gives insight and credibility to the premise of the brain tumour and its effects on the sufferer.
Were Austin and Tibbie's lives really perfect, as Austin had intended them to be? If so, why did Tibbie suspect an affair? A great read, with twists of detail that muddy the waters.
Chad Taylor: Blue Hotel
The first time Blanca Nul died was at the White Stream Tavern.
Set in the 1980s, Blue Hotel starts off a bit like The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, or The Gone. A mouthy, leather-clad Danish tourist disappears in Northland, after antagonising the locals. Alcoholic journalist Ray is chasing the tail of a good story, but not for long.
The case seems more like a black and white case of 'tourist falls in the water' every minute. Until someone runs Ray off the road. Who did it? The locals, or someone involved in the woman's disappearance?
Alcohol drives this tale, literally. Protagonist Ray is the epitome of the alkie journalist - gettting his first hit for the day in his mid-morning coffee, until his 'accident'. During his recovery, from both the drink and his injuries, the trail goes cold, news of Blanca Nul fading from headlines to a mention hidden way back in the paper.
Until she's sighted again.
Readers follow Ray from tabloid old-school newsrooms to bars and S&M joints, by way of fast cars. What goes on at the Blue Hotel, and what does it have to do with Blanca Nul? Does the truth really lie in art?
This is a good book. It's dark - Taylor jumps straight in at the beginning with an exciting plot, the obligatory back-story of the flawed journalist-turned-detective, corporate raiders and subterfuge. It reminds me a bit of Val McDermid's Allie Burns series, featuring an investigative journalist, in the 1970s and 80s.
I love quizzes. The last time the Awards were combined with a quiz, I won a Val McDermid book. From Val McDermid! Good luck to all those nominated. You are proof of the fact that Kiwi Crime Writers can compete on the world stage.