The usual suspects took a back seat as first-time crime writers Fiona Sussman, Finn Bell, and Michael Bennett swept the spoils at the 2017 Ngaio Marsh Awards in Christchurch on Saturday night.
The talented trio made history on several fronts at a special WORD Christchurch event hosted in Dame Ngaio’s hometown by Scorpio Books as part of nationwide NZ Bookshop Day celebrations.
“Each of our winners this year is a remarkable storyteller who uses crime writing as a prism through which to explore broader human and societal issues,” said Ngaios founder Craig Sisterson. “When we launched in 2010 we wanted to highlight excellence in local crime writing, beyond traditional ideas of puzzling whodunits or airport thrillers. Our 2017 winners emphasise that broader scope to the genre, and showcase the inventiveness and world-class quality of our local storytellers.”
Sussman is the first female author to win the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel. THE LAST TIME WE SPOKE (Allison & Busby) is her second novel but the first foray into crime storytelling for the former GP who grew up in Apartheid South Africa. It explores the ongoing impact of a brutal home invasion on both victim and perpetrator. “Laden with empathy and insight,” said the international judging panel. “A challenging, emotional read, harrowing yet touching, this is brave and sophisticated storytelling.”
It took Sussman seven years to research and write her winning novel. She travelled Aotearoa visiting prisons, talking to police and victims, inmates and ex-gang members, and seeking advice from Māori writers to ensure she brought authenticity to the disparate worlds of her characters. She won a Ngaios trophy, special edition of a Dame Ngaio book, and $1,000 cash prize courtesy of WORD Christchurch.
Self-published e-book author Finn Bell won Best First Novel for DEAD LEMONS and was a finalist for Best Crime Novel for PANCAKE MONEY. His debut explores themes of addiction, loss, and recovery as a wheelchair-bound man contemplating suicide decamps to a remote cottage in Southland, only to be obsessively drawn into a dangerous search for a father and daughter who went missing years before.
Bell has worked in night shelters, charities, hospitals, and prisons. He is the first author to ever have two books become finalists in a single year. The judges called him “a wonderful new voice in crime writing” who “delivers a tense, compelling tale centred on an original, genuine, and vulnerable character.”
Experienced filmmaker Michael Bennett (Te Arawa) won the inaugural Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Non Fiction for IN DARK PLACES (Paul Little Books), the astonishing tale of how teenage car thief Teina Pora spent decades in prison for the brutal murder of Susan Burdett, and the remarkable fight to free him. The international judging panel called it “a scintillating, expertly balanced account of one of the most grievous miscarriages of justice in New Zealand history”.
“Decades ago a woman from Christchurch was among the biggest names in the books world,” said Sisterson. “In recent years there’s a growing appreciation abroad for the top talent of our contemporary Kiwi crime writers; a reputation that’s going to flourish even more thanks to this year’s winners.”