Ngaio Marsh founder Craig Sisterson’s insight into how and why he started this award. (Part 1)

 

1. How and why did you found the Ngaio Marsh Awards?

There’s a long and a short answer to this question. For the sake of space, here’s a shorter one. I’ve always enjoyed reading crime fiction, from when I was a kid (started with Hardy Boys). While doing a yearlong world trip in 2007/2008, I read tonnes of crime while on long bus rides in Latin America, and also attended a Crime Writers of Canada event while in Vancouver.

At the time, I thought there wasn’t a great tradition of crime writing in New Zealand, other than Ngaio Marsh, Paul Thomas, and a handful of others, but when I returned home I discovered several modern authors who were writing books as good as the international stuff I’d been devouring while travelling. But they didn’t get much publicity.

And unlike Canada and many other countries, New Zealand didn’t have a crime writing award to recognise the best of these writers. They’d never get considered by our NZ Book Awards (which tend to lean more literary, like the Booker Prize). Other ‘popular fiction’ genres in New Zealand, like romance and sci-fi, had their own awards, as did children’s books. But there were no crime awards. Eventually, I decided we should start one.

So I spent a few months, in among my full-time job, talking to various people, arranging judges, designing a trophy, arranging prize money, talking to authors, publishers, and the media about entries, and planning an event

We launched the inaugural Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel in 2010. I get too much credit for establishing it, because it was a real team effort, with lots of people involved, from Australian Crime Writers Association and Crime Writers Canada members who shared their awards experience, to a host of crime fiction afficianados around the world who provided a sounding board or stepped up as judges for our international judging panel. We’ve always had amazing judges – some of the world’s best crime critics, as well as editors, authors and others – and this gave our awards a real credibility right from the start, which was wonderful.

WORD Christchurch, who run the biennial Christchurch Writers & Readers Festival as well as many events throughout the year, have been brilliant. They gave our award an events home right from the start, even when they were dealing with all the fallout from the Christchurch earthquakes in 2010 and 2011.

And honestly, that is the shorter answer!

2. As the founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards, what advice would you give to anybody looking to set up their own awards?

I think if you’re going to set up a new award, you want to be filling a gap that isn’t otherwise covered. For us that was clear, as there was no award for NZ crime, mystery, or thriller writing. As we’ve added categories over the years, I’ve tried to focus on things that need highlighting or otherwise aren’t as well covered by what already exists. When it comes to setting up your own awards, talk to other people who are involved with similar awards, and pick their brains about what works and what doesn’t, and why they’ve done things a certain way, or changed it over the years. In this way you can accelerate your learning and stand on the shoulders of giants (I certainly did this), and then cherry pick what suits you with what you’re trying to do, creating your own thing.

An example: for the Ngaios we have a large international judging panel, made of up judges from several different countries. Other awards I’ve been involved with, and are very good, have three local-ish judges who meet for a lunch to discuss the entries and pick finalists etc. That couldn’t work for us, with our geographic spread, so we created a different judging system. So why didn’t I just have three NZ judges who could meet in person and discuss the books? Because I wanted to call on the expertise of top crime afficianados from around the world, and also get a range of perspectives, rather than solely local critics.

Funnily enough, years later there have been literary authors and others in the NZ books community calling for our major NZ Book Awards to adopt some of the things the Ngaio Marsh Awards do, in terms of how we’re run.

I think the important thing is to be clear about what you’re trying to achieve, in terms of what you’re honouring with your award, then learn what you can, take what works for you and tweak what doesn’t, so it fits your goals.

3. Who has been nominated for the awards this year?

We had a record number of entries this year, so it’s great to see things keep growing in terms of New Zealand crime writing. We’ve ended up with fourteen finalist books across three categories:

• Best Crime Novel: PANCAKE MONEY by Finn Bell, SPARE ME THE TRUTH by CJ Carver, RED HERRING by Jonothan Cullinane, MARSHALL’S LAW by Ben Sanders, and THE LAST TIME WE SPOKE by Fiona Sussman
• Best First Novel: DEAD LEMONS by Finn Bell, RED HERRING by Jonothan Cullinane, THE ICE SHROUD by Gordon Ell, THE STUDENT BODY by Simon Wyatt, and DAYS ARE LIKE GRASS by Sue Younger.
• Best Non Fiction: IN DARK PLACES by Michael Bennett, THE SCENE OF THE CRIME by Steve Braunias, DOUBLE-EDGED SWORD by Simonne Butler, THE MANY DEATHS OF MARY DOBIE by David Hastings, and BLOCKBUSTER: FERGUS HUME AND THE MYSTERY OF A HANSOM CAB by Lucy Sussex.

Lots of fresh voices there, and a really diverse array of crime reads, from action-packed spy stories to literary crime to dark serial killer stuff to police procedurals, and some remarkable true crime writing.

Find out more about this fascinating man and his journey here.

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