Crime & Mystery Writing in New Zealand

by Stephen Ross
First Published: Criminal Brief, Jun 16, 2009 READ

New Zealand is at the foot of the South Pacific. We have a population of 4.3 million, we speak English, we spell colour with a u, and according to Mark Twain we are like Switzerland.

I’ve often heard it said we are good readers. I don’t know if this is true or merely something put about to make us feel good. I can, however, personally confirm that most of our bookstores have decent-sized crime and mystery sections, so those that read clearly have a taste for C & M.

But, here’s a curious thing: you won’t find ANY New Zealand authors in that crime and mystery section.

Bookstores have a strange habit of corralling local authors onto a separate shelf, usually at the back of the store, and all in together — crime next to romance next to historical next to literary.

I could write a 5000-word thesis on why they do this, but I’ll sum it up with one. Parochial.

And glancing at that segregated bookshelf today, in the largest bookstore in my town, I found only one novel (among a good two hundred) that would sit in the crime box — Craig Marriner’s Southern Style. Marriner is a type of Quentin Tarantino with a left-wing political bent.

Not one other book in the New Zealand section was even faintly of the C & M persuasion. Why is this? Frankly, because there have been sod-all crime and mystery writers in NZ. And why is that?

We don’t do genre in New Zealand.

I’m paraphrasing, but this was the response I got from an agent to a book I submitted a couple of years ago — a detective novel. He would have been better served by saying: Your book is crap, Mr Ross, but that’s another story.

The pursuit of writing in this country has for the most part been viewed as academic and highbrow. It is a precious thing. It’s something that should only be discussed in hushed tones, by the duly anointed, while miniature bells are chimed.

The pursuit of movie making used to be the same, until Peter Jackson came along, barefoot and beard, and showed everyone that it was actually possible to make movies that are entertaining, profitable, and widely appealing.

So maybe that’s all we’re waiting for? An iconoclast.

It nearly happened twenty years ago, with the publication of Alan Duff’s Once Were Warriors — a gritty novel of crime in the suburbs.

It was a local best seller, made into a movie, and people still talk about it. The critics panned it. It’s also one of the few local books I’ve ever seen in a bookstore in another country (Hugendubel, Frankfurt).

And it’s not like New Zealand never had a precedent for crime and mystery. Ngaio Marsh (pronounced NIGH-oh) was a New Zealander. She was a contemporary of Agatha Christie and she wrote 32 detective novels; she had several short stories printed in EQMM and AHMM (if any other New Zealanders have, I’d love to know who they are); and the Mystery Writers of America made her a Grand Master.

What more of a precedent should one want? It works for me.

Sadly, I wasn’t aware of her existence until I was in my teens. We had several Aunty Agathas on the family bookshelf, and we had Earle Stanley Gardner (The Case of the Curious Bride was quite possibly the first crime novel I ever read, straight after Enid Blyton’s Secret Seven stories). But we had no Ngaio Marsh.

The local writer we were taught about in school was Katherine Mansfield — a competent writer, to be sure, but not of C & M.

There is an annual short story competition here: the Katherine Mansfield Award. I glance at the winning entries each year. I find the usual twee stories … coloured balloons drifting across deserted beaches while sad men ponder their wives’ feet.

There is no Ngaio Marsh award.

After Dame Ngaio, I should mention Ronald Hugh Morrieson. Morrieson wrote 4 books between 1963 and 1976. Creepy, gothic, and blackly humoured. His books were the same. He was New Zealand’s Stephen King, and he wrote the best opening line in the country’s canon: “The same week our fowls were stolen, Daphne Moran had her throat cut.”

Morrieson was another writer they didn’t tell us about in high school (or at university). And he only wrote 4 books because the critics loathed him, and he succumbed to depression. And then he died.

One thing they did tell us was that a prevalent theme in New Zealand literature is “man alone”.

Hemingway, in To Have and Have Not, wrote “a man alone ain’t got no bloody fucking chance”. John Mulgan took that for the title and theme of his 1930s book Man Alone — Independent English bloke arrives in Auckland during the depression. He has bitter memories of WW1 trenches. Gets into trouble. Has affair with boss’s wife. Boss is killed….

It sounds like noir, and it almost is. Man Alone became a working model for many NZ writers, and it hugely influenced our film industry (and, to some degree, the fine arts community).

So, there has been a reasonable chunk of crime going on in our books over the years. But it has been more novels with aspects of crime, rather than crime novels. And Marsh and Morrieson were almost the only ones who added mystery to the mix, and were certainly the only ones with which you would have used the term ‘genre’.

But, things change, albeit at a glacial pace. We do glaciers here — they’re rather scenic and spectacular. In recent years (as in, since the turn of the century), series detectives and crime novels proper have begun to appear. And the critics (some of them, at least) have been favourable.

Here are some current authors:

Andrea Jutson, who has a line in supernatural murder mysteries: SenselessDarkness Looking Back.

Yvonne Eve Walus: Murder at WorkMurder at Play. She has appeared at least twice (as far as I know) in British CWA anthologies.

Vanda Symon, who has a series detective Sam Shephard: OverkillThe Ringmaster.

Paul Cleave, a native of Christchurch (same as Dame Ngaio), and is of the Ian Rankin, hard-as-nails, school. Interestingly, his books: The CleanerThe Killing HourCemetery Lake, do better business in Germany than here. I’ve heard The Cleaner was second only to Harry Potter in the year it came out. Not surprisingly, a lot of NZ crime writers have followed suit of late and are in translation in Germany. Das ist gut, nicht war?

And the future? Well, as Joe Strummer once wrote, that is unwritten.