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Just some of the books in this epic Aotearoa crime reading list. (Image: Tina Tiller)
Just some of the books in this epic Aotearoa crime reading list. (Image: Tina Tiller)

BooksDecember 14, 2023

On borrowed crime: A summer reading list of local crime books

Just some of the books in this epic Aotearoa crime reading list. (Image: Tina Tiller)
Just some of the books in this epic Aotearoa crime reading list. (Image: Tina Tiller)

New library data shows just how much New Zealanders enjoy reading about crime. So here’s a hefty list of Aotearoa’s finest crime fiction and true crime nonfiction just in time for the holidays.

Crime fiction dominated the most-borrowed or circulated books in 2023, according to information provided by a sample of Aotearoa libraries (thanks to Far Northland District Council, Auckland Council, Wellington City Council, Waipa District Council, Marlborough District Council and Christchurch City Council).

Lee Child’s (and Andrew Child’s) No Plan B (the latest Jack Reacher novel, published this year) was top of the list for readers across Waipa, Christchurch, Marlborough and the Far North. In Auckland the number one book was The Doctor’s Wife by local author Fiona Sussman (a crime novel), and in Wellington readers also went local with Eleanor Catton’s Birnam Wood at number one (also crime).

This pleasing demand for local books was also reflected in the rest of the top spots for both major cities: Auckland’s next top four books were (in order) One of Those Mothers by Megan Nicol Reed, Everything is Beautiful and Everything Hurts by Josie Shapiro, Better the Blood by Michael Bennett, and Second Chances: Facing my Demons and Finding a Better Me by Hayley Holt (all local, only some of them crime). Wellington’s remaining top five was made up of Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus, The Bullet that Missed by Richard Osman, The Axeman’s Carnival by Catherine Chidgey and Straight Up by Ruby Tui (Chidgey and Tui both local, the other two not so much).

Auckland Council’s Head of Library and Learning Services, Catherine Leonard, explains that their Aotearoa-filled list is thanks to their new Bestie short-loan collection (“a game-changer”), which “knocked our usual triumvirate of most-borrowed authors – Lee Child, Michael Connelly and David Baldacci – down into the second half of the list.” Leonard also points to their Ka Pānui Tātau i Tāmaki Makaurau | We Read Auckland celebration which puts a curated collection of ten books by Auckland writers in all 56 libraries. Three of those books took the top spots in the list above. 

The top five spots in all the other library networks were almost all studded by international stars of crime: mostly Lee Child, Lucinda Riley, and David Baldacci. Though it must be noted that the fifth most borrowed book across Christchurch City Library network was How Maui Slowed the Sun by Peter Gossage, a classic Aotearoa children’s book that could, from some angles, be considered crime-ish.

As Marlborough District Council’s libraries manager Glenn Webster says, “There are no real surprises here!” Crime fiction is gripping, it can be uncannily close to home, and the genre always offers a reader the addictive experience of vicarious thrills: danger, suspense, mystery and the deep satisfaction of having those things put to bed (sometimes literally) through a combination of outrageous bravery/lunacy and nifty detective work.

In the spirit of giving readers what they want this Christmas, and in the spirit of Auckland Council Libraries’ epic local books success, we offer a compilation of Aotearoa’s own crime and thrillers to gift wrap or for that well-deserved gift-to-self pile. We’ve divided the list into fiction and true crime – many titles were published this year, but we’ve included 2022 publications thanks to guidance from the Ngaio Marsh Awards which were announced late last month.

Crime Fiction

Better the Blood by Michael Bennett (Simon & Schuster)

Winner of the 2023 Ngaio Marsh Award for Best First Novel; shortlisted for the 2023 Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction; and the fourth most borrowed book across Auckland Libraries this year. Better the Blood tells the story of Māori detective, senior sergeant Hana Westerman, who has to confront the atrocities of the past while hunting a serial killer. The Ngaio Marsh Award judges said that Bennett’s story is “an audacious and powerful blend of history, polemic, and crime thriller”. You can read Bennett’s fascinating insight into the novel right here on The Spinoff.

Birnam Wood by Eleanor Catton (Te Herenga Waka University Press)

Wellingtonian library users are clearly fans of this fast-paced, enviro-thriller about a psychotic billionaire and his body-thirsty hunt for cash. Never mind the rare birds, never mind the earnest guerrilla gardeners, or the sly wealthy white people, or the government. Catton is just incredibly good and this novel will have you scanning the sky for drones and neurotically (or sensibly?) wondering if your phone might have been hacked. Read our review here, and interview with the author here. Would not be at all surprised if this is on all the awards lists next year.

Blood Matters by Renée (The Cuba Press)

I wrote this article before the news that the one-woman phenomenon that is Renée died on 11 December. It is so delightful to me that she is here. That her second crime novel is still moving forward, and on and into the hands of readers. I’m pretty sure she would have loved this too. Blood Matters was shortlisted for this year’s Ngaio Marsh Award for best novel. You can buy it here. Here’s the tanatalising blurb: “Puti’s already got a lot on her plate. She’s the new guardian of ten-year-old Bella Rose, who wants to be a private investigator when she grows up, and the new owner of a bookshop called Mainly Crime. But when there’s a murder closer to home and another of the grandfather’s masks seems to be at the centre of it, Puti and Bella Rose are drawn into the investigation despite themselves. They discover that in matters of blood you often don’t get a choice.”

Renée, author of Blood Matters, right, with Dame Fiona Kidman at the 2021 Verb Readers & Writers Festival (Photo: Rebecca McMillan)

Blue Hotel by Chad Taylor (Brio)

Craig Sisterson, the heroic founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards, reviewed this novel and said: “Taylor’s long-awaited return, Blue Hotel, shows he can still be one of the most exciting voices in antipodean literature. It’s a dark and funny tale set among the excesses and economic crashes of the late 1980s while veering across diverse locations in greater Auckland.” Sold.

Dice by Claire Baylis (Allen & Unwin NZ)

We suspect that this book will be on the Ngaio Marsh Awards longlist for 2024 given the intense response and respect that this powerful jury drama has elicited from readers. The Spinoff’s own Sam Brooks is a big fan: read his review here.

Double Jeopardy by Stef Harris (Quentin Wilson Publishing)

This is Harris’ (a frontline police officer with over 30 years’ experience, and filmmaker) third novel and features detective Frank Winter – “a retired county sheriff and former hard-boiled Boston detective with a soft center”. The publisher describes the novel as “an old-school crime novel with a surprisingly modern twist.” Over on Stuff you can read a Q & A with Harris that delves into the relationship between his work and his art-making, and the answer to why Double Jeopardy is set in Boston. 

Exit .45 by Ben Sanders (Allen & Unwin NZ)

Sanders wrote his first three novels while still at university. Exit .45 (his fifth) was shortlisted for this year’s Ngaio Marsh Awards and has a high rating on Good Reads. Here’s a sample: “This is the first Ben Sanders book I have read but it won’t be the last, I really want to get to know Marshall Grade even better. This is a fast paced, action packed story, a real page turner. Set in New York, Marshall does everything he can to uncover … the murder of an ex-cop and friend … and stops at nothing to get his answers.”

Expectant by Vanda Symon (Simon & Schuster)

Lordy cheese rolls, this book is good. Set in Dunedin, Symon’s latest novel centres on the murder of a heavily pregnant woman and sets detective Sam Shephard down a rabbit hole of a string of mother-child killings. “The Edinburgh of the south has never been more deadly,” says thee Ian Rankin.

His Favourite Graves by Paul Cleave (Upstart Press)

Paul Cleave is a prolific crime writer with huge success overseas. This latest (released last month) novel is his twelfth, is set in a fictional small town in America, and is getting raves on Good Reads: “Gird your loins and prepare yourself for an extremely dark, pacey and claustrophobic small town thriller, with shades of Fargo, but at its very core, how far familial bonds ill cause individuals to act in increasingly more desperate ways…” Also thee Lee Child says that “Paul Cleave is an automatic must-read for me.”

Home Before Night J. P. Pomare (Hachette)

This is Pomare’s sixth book (the seventh, Seventeen Years Later, is due out in August 2024) and is the pandemic thriller you didn’t know you needed. Here’s the blurb: “As the third wave of the virus hits, all inhabitants of Melbourne are given until 8pm to get to their homes… When Lou’s son, Samuel, doesn’t arrive home by nightfall, she begins to panic. He doesn’t answer his phone. He doesn’t message. His social media channels are inactive. Lou is out of her mind with worry, but she can’t go to the police, because she has secrets of her own. Secrets that Samuel just can’t find out about. Lou must find her son herself and bring him home.”

One Heart One Spade (Alistair Luke, self-published)

This historic crime novel (another to be shortlisted in the 2023 Ngaio Marsh Awards) was inspired by the author’s own experience of losing a friend to murder. In this interview with NZ Booklovers, Luke explains: “From nowhere, I started to recall a teenage friend of mine, Miles, who was randomly murdered in broad daylight in Central Wellington in 1980. I started to think about all of the things in the succeeding 40 years that he had never seen and would mystify him.” 

One of Those Mothers by Megan Nicol Reed (Allen & Unwin NZ)

I got an early read of this book last summer and remember it fondly as one of those novels you can rip through, and gasp at, and get thoroughly embroiled in. It’s tense, and tight and familiar. This is what crime queen Charity Norman said about it: “With stiletto-sharp observation, vibrantly drawn characters and a deeply disturbing secret at its heart, One of Those Mothers had me in its grasp from the first chapter. A terrific debut.”

Paper Cage by Tom Baragwanath (Text Publishing)

Set in Masterton, this debut novel about missing children was shortlisted for both the 2023 Ngaio Marshes, and over the ditch it was shortlisted for best international crime fiction at the Ned Kelly Awards. Fiona Sussman says, “Expansive in its reach, and stunningly singular in its detail, this literary thriller heralds the arrival of an exciting new voice in New Zealand storytelling.”

Pet by Catherine Chidgey (Te Herenga Waka University Press)

Another novel that we suspect we’ll see on the Ngaio Marsh Awards longlist for 2024. This is the first of two Chidgey novels on this list and has been praised everywhere from The Spinoff to the New York Times. This novel is a masterful, controlled psychological thriller: the plot will sneak up on you with its unravelling, its elements of the uncanny, and its ending.

Remember Me by Charity Norman (Allen & Unwin NZ)

This year’s winner of the Ngaio Marsh Award for best crime novel! This is what the judges said about Norman’s seventh novel: “There’s an Olympian degree of difficulty in  this novel. To write about characters facing devastating, mind-altering health diagnoses and blend these everyday tragedies – all too familiar to some readers – into an elevated suspense novel, while steering clear of mawkishness and self-pity … Remember Me is an astounding piece of work.” 

The 2023 winners of the Ngaio Marsh Awards: Michael Bennett (best first book), Charity Norman (best novel), and Steve Braunias (best nonfiction). Taken at the awards ceremony event in November 2023, in partnership between WORD Christchurch and Ngaio Marsh Awards.

Surveillance by Riley Chance (CP Books)

As the title suggests this novel is all about the spine-creeping realities of big brother. Chance (a nom de plume) wrote all about the inspiration for the book over on Newsroom, here. Here’s a snippet: “Wanting privacy, choosing what you want the world to know about you, doesn’t equate to having something to hide. If you’re watched 24/7 with everything you do made public, you’ll live a different life (I wouldn’t have bought the kebab).”

The Doctor’s Wife by Fiona Sussman (Bateman)

The number one book on Auckland Council Libraries most-borrowed list and shortlisted for this year’s Ngaio Marsh Award. This is Sussman’s fourth novel (her second, The Last Time We Spoke, won the 2017 Ngaio Marsh Award for best crime novel) and is about the murder of a doctor’s wife, set on Auckland’s North Shore. It’s a taut police procedural with wildly good reviews: it’s absolutely gripping and extremely well written.

The Axeman’s Carnival by Catherine Chidgey (Te Herenga Waka University Press)

Chidgey’s Aotearoa Gothic, fairytale-esque novel (and winner of the Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction at this year’s Ockhams) needs to be on this list. The sense of looming dread, the ominous symbolism, the exploration of domestic violence is so deftly spun, and beautifully woven into something entirely unique, and alive, thanks to the voice of Tama the magpie.

The Slow Roll by Simon Lendrum (Upstart Press)

This debut novel won the NZ Booklovers award for Best Adult Fiction Book 2023, was shortlisted for the best novel in the 2023 Ngaio Marsh Awards, and comes with a swath of excellent reviews. Here’s the blurb: “It seemed a simple request. ‘Can you find my daughter who has run away?’ But for professional gambler O’Malley, life isn’t that simple. There is the murder of one of his poker partners, the attention of drug dealers, money launderers, the police, the gangs, and just to top it all off there is his intriguing girlfriend Claire, who just seems to be better at part-time sleuthing than he is. No, nothing is simple for O’Malley.” 

Too Far From Antibes by Bede Scott (Penguin)

A historic crime novel set in 1950s Saigon, Too Far From Antibes, is a stylish noir novel humming with atmosphere (and was also shortlisted for the Ngaio Marsh Award for best novel 2023). The Good Reads community are having an excellent time with it: “A wonderfully brisk, old-fashioned thriller written with light comedic touches. Read it in two sittings.”

True Crime

A New Dawn by Emeli Sione and illustrated by Darcy Solia (Mila’s Books)

Mila’s Books is an indie, all-Pasifika publishing house with a range of beautiful books for families. A New Dawn is the personal story of the Dawn Raids and how the trauma of that incident affected Sione’s family. This book was shortlisted for best nonfiction at the Ngaio Marsh Awards 2023. E-Tangata published an in-depth story with Emeli Sione, about why she wrote the book, here.

Downfall: The destruction of Charles Mackay by Paul Diamond (Massey University Press)

The 1920 attempted murder of young gay poet D’Arcy Cresswell by the then Mayor of Whanganui, Charles Mackay, is an extraordinary story and Paul Diamond’s meticulous unravelling of why it happened, and the aftermath, is exceptional work. Victor Rodger wrote a wonderful review of the book that you can read right here.

Downfall is a work of historic true crime: the story of a murder and the Mayor of Whanganui. (Image: Archi Banal)

Far North by David White and Angus Gillies (Allen & Unwin NZ)

This book accompanies a limited TV series of the same name, and tells the story of one of Aotearoa’s biggest failed drug imports. This from the publisher’s blurb should have you hooked: “A story involving people tied up with the world’s biggest drug cartel and Australian outlaw motorcycle gangs. A cast of characters with code names such as Marvel, Thugga and Gravel, who – cursed with terrible luck and comical decision making, and despite leaving a trail of destruction you could see from space – came breathtakingly close to succeeding. A story where the saying truth is stranger than fiction really does ring true.”

Gangster’s Paradise by Jared Savage (HarperCollins NZ)

This is the follow up to Savage’s earlier book, Gangland, and delves into why there is an escalation of gangs in New Zealand. Savage is a compelling and careful writer who ensures that readers understand the social and economic realities that underpin the criminal worlds of the book. You can read an insightful interview with Savage on The Spinoff, here.

Missing Persons by Steve Braunias (HarperCollins NZ)

Winner of the Ngaio Marsh Award for nonfiction 2023! Of this collection of 12 stories of death and disappearance in Aotearoa, the judges said “A fascinating investigation of where people had become lost: to society, themselves, their families. His [Braunias’] writing is so informed and informative. Braunias has put in the legwork, knows his material, and because of that manages to make each piece something personal.”

The Devil You Know: Encounters in Forensic Psychiatry by Gwen Adshead & Eileen Horne (Simon & Schuster)

This book sounds absolutely fascinating and is now on my summer reading pile. Adshead (born in Christchurch) has spent decades of her life working with violent offenders in the UK and this book is a dive into her experiences and findings. Here’s an excerpt form the blurb: “Alongside doctor and patient, we discover what human cruelty, ranging from serial homicide to stalking, arson or sexual offending, means to perpetrators, experiencing firsthand how minds can change when the people some might label as “evil” are able to take responsibility for their life stories and get to know their own minds. With outcomes ranging from hope to despair, from denial to recovery, these men and women are revealed in all their complexity and shared humanity. In this era of mass incarceration, deep cuts in mental health care and extreme social schisms, this book offers a persuasive argument for compassion over condemnation.”

The Crewe Murders: Inside New Zealand’s most infamous cold case by Kirsty Johnston & James Hollings (Massey University Press)

On 17 June 1970 David and Jeannette Crewe were shot dead in their home in Pukekawa. With the killers still not discovered after two trials, two appeals, and a royal commission that found police corruption, it is impossible for this story not to have you pinned to the deck chair. Johnston and Hollings have done a huge amount of work. This book is a must-read and we suspect we’ll see it on the Ngaio Marsh Awards nonfiction list next year.

The Fix: The story of one of New Zealand’s biggest swindles by Scott Bainbridge (Bateman)

Swindler is such a good word. This book is about a big old Australian swindler who came to Aotearoa to swindle in the 1960s. It’s a fantastic story of a con artist who managed to evade and manipulate police, the FBI, Scotland Yard, the Canadian Mounties and Interpol. It’s also the story of the persistent efforts of three Auckland detectives and their epic fight for justice.

All these books can be purchased or ordered from Unity Books Auckland and Wellington, or borrowed from your local library.

Keep going!