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Craig Sisterson (Photo: Supplied)
Craig Sisterson (Photo: Supplied)

BooksJuly 25, 2023

Meet the real life hero of NZ crime fiction

Craig Sisterson (Photo: Supplied)
Craig Sisterson (Photo: Supplied)

Books editor Claire Mabey sits down with Craig Sisterson, mastermind of the Ngaio Marsh Awards, at the Charles Holden pub in Colliers Wood, London.

I’ve heard a lot about Craig Sisterson over the years – as the “crime guy” from the Ngaio Marsh Awards and Twitter, and through word of mouth, too – but somehow we’d never met in person. Probably because, although he manages to get home fairly regularly, Craig lives in London. Since we were finally in the same city, we decided to meet at his local: an olde worlde pub called Charles Holden. After ordering a pint (Craig) and a half (me) of Brixton IPA we spoke about his decade of supporting crime writers in Aotearoa.

Claire Mabey: It’s so lovely to finally meet you Craig. Cheers! Let’s start with the awards: why did you start the Ngaio Marsh Awards?

Craig Sisterson: The basic answer is that I felt there was a significant gap, both in terms of New Zealand crime writing in a global sense, and New Zealand crime writing within the local scene. A dual gap. I used to say, at the time, that New Zealand was the only English-speaking country other than Belize not to have a crime writing award: there were UK awards, multiple American crime writing awards, Australia had the Ned Kellys, Canada had the Arthur Ellis awards. All our contemporaries in the English-speaking Commonwealth had crime writing awards, except for us. 

Over in the UK, if a crime writer wrote a great book, but they were getting ignored by the Booker Prize, it was fine because there was the CWA Daggers and now other awards like the Theakston Old Peculiar Crime Novel of the Year, so they had their own way of honouring the best of the genre. In New Zealand, no matter how well written, no matter how experimental, no matter how genre-busting, or whatever, the chances are we’d get overlooked for the Montanas [now The Ockhams]. 

Why do you think those awards tend to overlook crime? 

I think they model themselves on things like the Booker Prize, or the Miles Franklin in Australia. There have been some crime-esque novels that have won or been shortlisted, but they’re often thought of as novels that have a lot of crime. And that’s OK, but we just didn’t have that other award to honour that kind of book. When I was thinking of starting the Ngaios, I could see that the romance writers in New Zealand had their awards and sci-fi/fantasy had the Sir Julius Vogel Awards. Crime is a huge part of the market: for readers, libraries and bookshops. It was a glaring and obvious gap.

Had you done much in the way of bookish work before that?

I’d only done a few little events, but I’d been reviewing for a while. I mean, I’ve been reading crime since I was a kid, starting with The Hardy Boys. I used to say I started with Agatha Christie and Sherlock Holmes. But after talking to Linwood Barclay, the great Canadian crime writer, he talked about The Hardy Boys as crime fiction. And I was like, oh, yeah, I read those when I was at Richmond primary school. 

But I started reviewing in 2008 completely by accident. I was working for a legal magazine and one day when someone didn’t file their article we were stuck with a blank page, and we were going to the printer the next day. And my boss said to me, “Craig, have you read any good books lately? Can you write a book review to fill pages?” And I told her “Well, I’ve actually just read these two really cool New Zealand crime novels, one called The Ringmaster by Vanda Symon, and one called Cemetery Lake by Paul Cleave. Can I review those? Can I review crime novels?” So I did. 

We got some nice feedback about those reviews so we decided to occasionally do fiction reviews alongside the legal textbooks and true crimes. From there, I started reviewing for The Herald on Sunday, when Nicky Pellegrino did the book pages, then Canvas. It kind of just blossomed, from an accident. When I started out, not many people were reviewing crime and I started to see that we were only occasionally looking at New Zealand stuff, even though it was so good. I wondered: why aren’t we celebrating this more? 

Did you have good support for the Ngaios in the early days? In terms of enthusiasm and money? 

Yes, and no? Because I’d started reviewing and interviewing authors, I got invited to some publisher Christmas parties and started to talk to people there saying maybe we should do crime writing awards. Almost everyone said it was a good idea. But it was like they were all waiting for someone to do it. So I just thought, fuck it. I’ll do it. 

I knew crime fiction reviewers overseas. So, to source judges for the awards, I was able to get experts who had written reviews for the Telegraph for 17 years, and have been CWA Dagger judges. So even though we didn’t have big prize money, I wanted to make sure that the awards were really legit, in terms of the judging. We’ve always had five to seven judges every year since we started, which I didn’t realise was weird until people told me later that most awards had like, three. And we had seven judges from four countries. Which to me seemed normal: like that was the way to get this broad, high-level experience, and get overseas people looking at our New Zealand books.

I definitely felt like I was a lone wolf on the fringes at the beginning, but there were some great people who supported us at the start: Graham Beattie was one of our first judges; and Morrin Rout and Ruth Todd at what was then the Christchurch Readers & Writers Festival [now WORD Christchurch] – they were so excited and were doing a big launch event for the first ever Ngaios in 2010, which happened to be the festival that was cancelled because of the earthquakes. 

So we started with earthquakes. We also started with Alix Bosco who was the first ever winner but who we later found out was Greg McGee. So let’s just say our first winner was a mystery writer winning the mystery writing award. We didn’t get a lot of financial support other than WORD Christchurch who gave us some money for the writers, which was lovely. And they’ve done that every year. Amazing. 

So, this 2023 awards season is the 14th cycle of the awards. What have you learned? What changes have you seen? 

I’ve seen so many pleasant changes. Our first couple of years we had a handful to a dozen books to consider. This year we had 57 entries in our best novel category. And that’s not even our record. 

We’ve always tried to be inclusive: we adapted early and let people enter ebooks and self-published books. We wanted to be inclusive and build a community as well. That’s why we did our Mystery in the Library events which we’ve done since 2015 all over Aotearoa in big city libraries, small town libraries, rural libraries, just trying to connect readers and writers and libraries and booksellers everywhere. They’re all free events, or a gold coin donation that goes to the library. We take no money and we do all the organisation. I’ve done all that from over here [London]. 

What is crime to you? How do you define the genre?

Well, many people seem to think of crime fiction as detective fiction, because they remember Agatha Christie, or they think of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Ross MacDonald, the California noir Private Eye detectives. So they often equate crime fiction with detective fiction, but it’s always been broader than that. You’ve always had Patricia Highsmith, who was effectively writing domestic psychological thrillers years before we started using those terms. 

We’ve got legal thrillers, police procedurals, detective novels; you have what you call a literary suspense, a literary thriller; there’s a lot of cross genre novels (like romantic thrillers and suspense). There’s also crime that slightly veers into horror. I mean, a serial killer thriller is really a horror novel with a real monster. I’ve had these discussions with Paul Cleave who was originally thinking he’d be a horror writer until he read that FBI Mindhunter book by John Douglas and realised that he wanted to write about true monsters.

When I was growing up, I used to love going to the library in Richmond. They had those little bookmarks that would be like “If you liked JRR Tolkien try CS Lewis, Ursula Le Guin” and I think genre is good for that. If you like this kind of thing, here’s something else you might like.

So in terms of crime, and the Ngaio Marsh awards, our books don’t have to be detective fiction. They don’t have to have a police officer, they just have to have crime and thrills as a spine or a heart, or a big part of the story. The Ngaio’s are always about celebrating excellence in crime, mystery, thriller and suspense novels by New Zealanders, wherever they live in the world. 

Excellence is the key thing. Our awards were actually modelled on the Hammett Prize in North America. Margaret Atwood has won that award, along with Elmore Leonard and James Lee Burke and S. A. Cosby. So literary writers who’ve written crime. Like Eleanor Catton. Now she’s a wonderful literary writer. She’s amazing. She herself calls The Luminaries “an astrological historical murder mystery”.

Have there been any controversies over the years? Like, I know that for reasons of inclusivity there have been a few ruffled feathers.

Yeah, there’s been some pushback from within the literary community and from within the crime writing community. The year that Becky Manawatu won for Auē was a controversial year, because that was a book that was obviously entwined with domestic violence and gang violence, but not everyone felt it was a crime novel. I actually asked several people to review it when it was entered and generally those people all gave their thumbs up: crime novel. Because of its exploration of crime and justice issues in New Zealand, and the crime impacts the drama.

Whenever you create something, there’ll be people who think that it should have been done a different way. And that’s just how it is. You just have to take that on the chin. I’ve just tried to create the best thing we can. 

I feel like it’s a good sign when people complain, sometimes – at least they care about it. 

Well, I just trust our judges. This is our 14th year and I’ve probably only picked the winner about half the time, maybe less. Different people have different opinions. Also, we’ve listened over the years. We listened to self-published authors and opened it up to them; we opened it up for ebook entries, instead of print book entries, to lower the cost for everyone. We try and highlight all our entries, not just the winners and finalists, which is why we do Mystery in the Library series to include a massive amount of entrants.

Ngaio Marsh is a writer that, I am deeply ashamed to admit in front of you, I haven’t read. Were you a fan before you started the awards?

I first heard of her when I went to law school in Canterbury, and went to see a hypnotist do his thing at the Ngaio Marsh Theatre in the Student Association building for Uni orientation. So originally, I thought she was a theatre person from Canterbury (which is true) before I realised she was a crime writer. I think A Grave Mistake was the first book of hers that I found in a secondhand bookshop in Richmond one summer. Around the same time Dr Joanne Dreyton wrote a really great biography called Her Life of Crime, which is fantastic.

Was Marsh as good as Christie? Are they comparable?

Marsh was as big as Christie at the time. We forget that now. Because Christie has such a huge legacy with TV and film and reprints. And because Marsh died without any heirs her estate hasn’t really done as much with film and TV. 

But a lot of reviewers at the time felt that Marsh was the better writer, that she was elevating the quality of the genre at the time. Marsh had a more mundane central character, Inspector Alleyn, but her writing was better. Her sense of setting was better, and her secondary characters and dialogue, which comes from her theatre work, of course. 

Were any of her novels set in New Zealand? 

She wrote 32 novels starring Inspector Alleyn who was British (Scotland Yard) but in a few of the books he comes to New Zealand to do wartime stuff. Died in the Wool is a fascinating book. It has a female MP (in the 1940s!) who is killed and her body is found in a bale of wool at a high country station. Marsh ties in all this war stuff, Nazi stuff, and you’ve got to remember, she was writing this in 1942. We didn’t know how the war was going to end. It’s very different for a novelist now to write a book set in the 1940s when we know everything that’s happened in the 80 years since.

I need to read Died in the Wool! But for now, the 2023 Ngaio Marsh Awards longlist: what are your thoughts? Any surprises?

It’s a fascinating list. We have four debut crime novels. We’ve got Renée, who’s just remarkable. We have past winners Paul Cleave, and Fiona Sussman; and Jennifer Lane who won best first novel a few years ago. There’s also David Bishop’s The Darkest Sin which just won the CWA historical dagger award; and Chad Taylor’s Blue Hotel is phenomenal. And Charity Norman’s Remember Me is the only book that made me cry last year.

What, in your book, makes a great crime novel?

I could literally write a whole book about this. I think a lot of people when they think about crime fiction think of page-turning exciting stories. That is part of it. But that’s the foundation you have to have, that is the minimum. I think if you’re authentically providing a fresh or interesting new perspective, that’s what you want. You can tell sometimes when a person is intentionally trying to make the work as different as possible, but it doesn’t feel authentic. You’ve got to find your own voice, and what makes yours unique. And is that mixture of familiar and different, so it’s hard. 

I remember the first time I read S. A. Cosby’s Blacktop Wasteland. I knew from the first few pages that he was something special. And it was just the way he writes things: the phrasing, but again, not trying too hard. We feel it when someone’s trying to be James Lee Burke. Or trying to be Eleanor Catton. It has to feel authentic. I don’t know, there’s probably a better term. But it’s like the author’s hand: it’s bad when you can see the author’s hand because it pulls you out of the story. You want to get sucked in and forget you’re reading a book.

That is brilliant advice. Over the course of your career you’ve interviewed a lot of writers – you mentioned over 300? 

It’s definitely over that now. Near 400 maybe, interviewed for magazines, newspapers, podcasts, the stage. I was so lucky to chat to Michael Connelly about his frustrations with the Harry Bosch character being stuck in Hollywood production hell for 10 years and then chatting to him two years later, when the TV series was finally getting made. And that amazing TV series would not have happened if the film that they were trying to make 10 years ago had happened. I got to talk to Val McDermid on the main stage at the Edinburgh Book Festival. That was cool. 

Have you ever done an interview that has disarmed you? Or have any stuck out for any reason?

One of my very first events. Paul Cleave got me good. It was in 2010 as part of the first events we did, right after the first round of earthquakes that didn’t kill anyone but that were devastating. They happened in September, literally a week before the [Christchurch Readers & Writers] festival. We were going to have an improv murder mystery night with the Court Theatre before celebrating all the finalists on stage and giving out the first award. It didn’t go ahead obviously but instead, a few weeks later, we did a fundraiser event. But one of the finalists was this mysterious Alix Bosco so we got Paul to step in. 

I think I asked him something about Ngaio Marsh: What did he think about the writing, had it influenced him? But he just looked at me and said, “No.”

I waited because I knew Paul had this great sense of humour. But he just waited me out. It might have only been 20 seconds but it felt much longer. We have a laugh about that now. Paul is someone who should be as widely read as James Patterson. We talk about Eleanor Catton and Catherine Chidgey but Paul should also be talked about, and Nalini Singh and Nicky Pellegrino, too. They’re huge assets in New Zealand books.

When you say things like that it seems to me that you’re making a case for genre fiction to be as valid as literary fiction. Is that fair?

Well, yeah. Take Paul [Cleave’s] book, Trust No One, which came out several years ago. He tells that book from multiple perspectives from the same character who goes into early onset Alzheimer’s and who may or may not have been a serial killer himself. The character starts confessing he was a serial killer, but is that the dementia? It is a very experimental book: probably more experimental than any New Zealand literary novel at the time. It was so genius. But it got overlooked. We have amazing crime writers. We should be supporting them. We’re all in it together.

What would you say to anyone who has never read a crime novel from New Zealand?

I would love for New Zealand readers to give our crime fiction a go. And here I’m going to give a bit of a confession. In April 2008, so two and a bit years before I’d launched the Ngaio Marsh Awards, I said to a very well respected Canadian author, William Deverell, that there wasn’t much New Zealand crime fiction. I’ve loved crime fiction my entire life but back then, even as a crime fan, I didn’t think we had very much. So I don’t blame New Zealand readers for not knowing what we have. 

But we need to give it a go because if we don’t give them a go, how can we expect international readers to? We expect, not just accept, our sports people to be winning Olympic and Commonwealth medals and yet somehow we think some of our creative artists can’t compete on the world stage. But you try a Michael Bennett or Nalini Singh novel and tell me they’re not as good as all these authors.

You can follow the 2023 Ngaio Marsh Awards on Facebook and Twitter, and see past winners on the Yeah Noir website. Longlisted books can be purchased from Unity Books Wellington and Auckland. Finalists will be announced in August and winners later in the year.

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