Last month the finalists for the Ngaio Marsh Awards were revealed, and on 28 October we’ll find out who has won this year’s prizes. Back in 2010, I helped establish the awards, which are for crime, mystery and thriller writing by New Zealand authors. This year a lot of newer authors have come to the fore during the judging process (along with the establishment of a new Non Fiction category), so I’m very curious to find out who the judges have chosen. The awards are named after Dame Ngaio Marsh, one of the four Queens of Crime of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction. Although Inspector Alleyn was a consummately British detective, and most of his adventures were set here, Marsh herself was from the far edges of the British Empire; a painter, theatre director, and mystery writer from New Zealand.

Traditionally the winners are revealed in Christchurch, Dame Ngaio’s hometown. This year’s event will be held on NZ Bookshop Day, thanks to WORD Christchurch and Scorpio Books. During September, a number of top book websites around the world have been highlighting our terrific finalists across three categories (Best Crime Novel, Best First Novel, Best Non Fiction). There’s a really fresh look this year, with only one prior finalist in the running. And after Paul Cleave has won the past two Best Crime Novel prizes (for FIVE MINUTES ALONE and TRUST NO ONE), there’s guaranteed to be a brand new winner.

This year’s Best Crime Novel finalists were chosen by an international panel consisting of past finalist Paddy Richardson, local critics Greg Fleming (NZ Herald) and Stephanie Jones (Coast FM), renowned mystery experts Ayo Onatade (UK), Janet Rudolph (USA) and Karen Chisholm (Australia), and award-winning Icelandic crime writer Yrsa Sigurdardottir. But who will add their names to the Ngaio Marsh Awards roll of honour? Today I’m stoked to give Crime Time readers a closer peek at the contenders for Best Crime Novel.

PANCAKE MONEY by Finn Bell (ebook) Whatever happens on 28 October, there’s little doubt that Finn Bell is one of the finds of this year’s awards season. A new author from the deep south of New Zealand, Bell made history by being the first ebook author to become a Ngaios finalist, and also becoming the first author to ever have two separate books be named finalists in a single year (his debut, DEAD LEMONS, is a finalist for Best First Novel, and was longlisted for Best Crime). In PANCAKE MONEY, Bobby Ress is a Dunedin detective with a family life who just wants to make a difference. But he’s thrust into a horrifying case when two Catholic priests are not only murdered, but martyred in torturous, medieval fashion, Ress and his partner Pollo Latu don’t know whether they’re hunting a vicious serial killer, or a team of vigilantes exacting some sort of revenge. As they dig into the priests’ pasts, they have to confront some of the darkest corners of humanity, putting their own lives on the line. This is clever, dark crime fiction from a fresh voice, populated with engaging characters, authentic relationships, a great narrative drive, and powerful philosophical threads. All set against a cinematic evocation of Otago’s landscapes, which add to the moody atmosphere.What the judges said: “A brutal page-turner with compelling characters that takes a deep-dive into the psychological and a captivating examination of urban and countryside life.”

Want to try it? Pancake Money Kindle edition –

SPARE ME THE TRUTH by CJ Carver (Bonnier Zaffre) ‘Half-Kiwi’ thriller writer CJ Carver zoomed into contention from her British base thanks to this action-packed and intriguing tale that combines spies and cops in one. The woman who’s been described as “the most macho of British thriller writers” kick-starts a brand new series with her eighth novel, introducing amnesiac former operative Dan Forrester. Forrester is piecing his life together after a family tragedy that scrambled his memory, when he’s approached by a woman who says his life as he knows it is a lie. Soon afterwards, grief-stricken Grace Reavey is accosted as her mother’s funeral by a blackmailer. Meanwhile maverick cop Lucy Davies has been banished to the boonies, but is determined to rehabilitate her image while on the hunt for a killer. Three strangers: each unknowingly clutching threads of a dangerous conspiracy, entangled on a dangerous hunt for the truth. Carver keeps the throttle high and the pages whirring in this highly enjoyable tale that offers plenty of action and intrigue. She draws us into the lives of three distinct main characters, and has the reader both fearing and hungering for the dangers lurking in the shadows. SPARE ME THE TRUTH is a cracking good thriller, an engrossing ripsnorter of a read. 

What the judges said: “Intriguing characters, twists that keep you guessing, and at heart a complex tale of betrayal and deception – a brilliant page-turner.”

Want to try it? Spare Me the Truth –

RED HERRING by Jonothan Cullinane (HarperCollins) Kiwi filmmaker and former oil rig worker Jonothan Cullinane joins Bell as a finalist in two categories this year, though in his case it’s for one book: his terrific debut RED HERRING. Hardboiled private eye fiction meets modern New Zealand history as readers are plunged headlong into the 1950s, including the power-grabs and backroom battles between the establishment and worker unions. In 1951 violent clashes on the waterfront led to the government calling in the military. The pain and loss of the Second World War still cast a shadow, and fears of Communism’s growing grip loomed large. New Zealand was the far edge of the former British Empire, but still a battleground for global politics in its own way.
Into this murky world steps Johnny Molloy, a soldier turned private eye who leaned hard left in the past, but is no longer sure. Hired to track a supposedly dead man, he crosses paths with an ambitious reporter looking to make her mark, and the pair find themselves knee-deep in the muck, sloshing about among various political groups and real-life figures.Cullinane may have come to crime writing later in life, but this is a heck of a debut, a fascinating noir tale textured by real history and realpolitik. RED HERRING is one for fans of the private eye tales of Hammett and his ilk, but with a fresh antipodean spin.

What the judges said: “Cullinane’s characters fizz and sparkle in this historical thriller whose cracking dialogue and ceaseless pace make it feel utterly current.”

Want to try it? Red Herring –

MARSHALL’S LAW by Ben Sanders (Minotaur Books/Allen & Unwin) In an interesting twist, the youngest of the Best Crime Novel finalists actually has the strongest pedigree in the Ngaios. Sanders wrote a bestselling police procedural trilogy while still at university, was then nabbed by a major New York publisher, is now a three-time Ngaio Marsh Awards finalist, and had his first Marshall Grade tale optioned by Hollywood. His second novel starring ex-NYPD undercover cop Marshall Grade bristles with a violent energy. Sanders has really hit his action-noir stride, and you could easily imagine a Tarantino or Coen brothers screen adaptation. When Marshall discovers a federal agent was abducted so hired killers could get info on Marshall’s whereabouts, he decides offense is the best form of defense. Saying goodbye to his California hideaway, Marshall returns East, linking up with former contacts in the drugs world – questionable characters with blurry ethics, from both sides of the law. The big question: who is hunting him, and why?

There’s real zing to Sanders’ writing. While his prose can be bone-dry, the marrow is rich. Violence abounds. It would be too easy (and reductive) to call Marshall a Reacher-like hero, but Sanders actually nods more to Elmore Leonard in style. While I personally missed the Southwest setting of AMERICAN BLOOD, as that further textured Marshall’s lone gunslinger persona, this New York sojourn is still top-notch crime writing from a rising star. What the judges said: “Some of the tautest writing and nastiest characters around, an adrenalin-charged tale where no-one emerges unscathed.”

Want to try it? Marshall’s Law –

THE LAST TIME WE SPOKE by Fiona Sussman (Allison & Busby) A Kiwi doctor who grew up in Apartheid South Africa, Sussman blends literary fiction with crime fiction in her second novel. The result is a powerful, evocative tale that examines the ongoing impact of violent crime for all involved, rather than whodunit or how-catch-em. Carla Reid has a nice life on the family farm in the countryside outside Auckland, with a son cresting into adulthood. One night her world collides with that of Ben Toroa, an illiterate teen caught up in gang life. A brutal home invasion tears both from their axis. A violent act, fodder for headlines, but what happens long after the media moves on? This is the tale of Carla’s stuttering recovery and Ben growing into adulthood in prison; a survivor and a perpetrator trying to make sense of their forever-altered lives. What do we do when our hopes and dreams are shattered? When the world’s torn away our choices and plans?

Sussman has crafted a sublime story that burrows into some unspoken aspects of crime. It’s confronting, but beautifully written. Provocative, but hopeful. Packed with a heart-wrenchingly authentic array of characters, THE LAST TIME WE SPOKE is the kind of crime novel that will stay with you long after you reach the final page.

What the judges said: “Lyrically and sensitively written, a harrowing yet touching story that stays with you; this is brave and sophisticated storytelling.” 

Want to try it? The Last Time We Spoke –

So there you have it: the five finalists for the 2017 Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel. Five very distinctive tales, all very different, from five very good crime writers; as one member of the international judging panel described it: “Talk about judging apples and pears, it was more like apples, asparagus, avocados, and melons!” Whatever your taste in fruit, the edge of the empire is providing something quite tasty.

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