Why we can't get enough of crime writing

by Vomle Springford / 10 April, 2018
Paul Cleave

The Murder in the Library series gives booklovers the chance to meet Kiwi authors, such as three-times Ngaio Marsh Award winner Paul Cleave, at events in cities and small towns across the country. Cleave will be at the Nelson Murder in the Library event on 24 May. Photo/WORD Christchurch.

Acclaimed Kiwi crime writers to discuss our gory interest in murder and mystery at Murder in the Library.

New Zealanders love a bloody good crime story, whether real-life, like the Bain family murders, or fiction, like Ben Sanders’ latest, The Stakes.

The most popular books checked out at Auckland Libraries last year were thrillers with four different crime-related novels in the top 10, and worldwide, crime books take up the top spots on many best-seller lists like The New York Times’. Whether via books, podcasts like Black Hands, and events like Murder in the Library, our fascination with crime, mystery and murder seems to be at an all-time high.

Why the obsession? Shane McCorristine, a cultural historian at the University of Cambridge, told the BBC that “getting close to criminals and perpetrators of horror is a way of experiencing death without falling victim to it, of becoming a witness to death and thus exerting some control over it”. Psychologists also suggest it connects us to our primal fears.

Craig Sisterson, founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards for crime writing and organiser of Murder in the Library, an upcoming series of panels where crime writers will discuss the obsession and crime writing, agrees. “Crime and thriller fiction taps into some very primal things, as does romance fiction - love and death. So it's no surprise that it's very popular.

“Murder mystery novels have been hugely popular for more than a century, and crime-drenched thriller tales for much longer - going back to Greek tragedies,” says Sisterson. “Readers like to be thrilled, to feel excitement and a sense of vicarious danger, and also to be intrigued or puzzled, to be wondering whodunnit or what's going on.”

Read more: Finalists revealed for the Ngaio Marsh Awards 2018

He says in recent decades crime fiction has grown, from the puzzle-like mysteries of Dames Christie and Marsh, or Hammett and Chandler's private eyes stalking the mean streets, to encompass a wide range of important issues.

“Crime writing is a great prism through which to examine society, and various aspects of humanity. Some of the very best writers, of any kind, are writing about crime, whether it's crime fiction, TV crime drama, or non-fiction true crime. Just look at the recent list of finalists for the Voyager Media Awards in the crime & justice features category - that's a group of New Zealand's very top long-form journalists right there. Crime is much bigger than just whodunnit.”

At Murder in the Library, which is held at libraries all over New Zealand in April and May, dozens of crime and mystery writers, like acclaimed author Paul Cleave, will touch on a variety of thought-provoking and crime writing-related topics, with the audience able to ask questions and mingle with the writers.

Started in 2015 to accompany the Ngaios, which have been running for eight years, the series is a way to support and celebrate Kiwi writers, in their local communities, as well as supporting local libraries, says Sisterson.

The continued interest in the genre is reflected in the series steadily growing from five events a year to 12 this year, including new locations like Rotorua (5 May), which is also set to host Rotorua Noir, New Zealand's first-ever crime writing festival, next January.

Find a Murder in the Library event near you here.

The winners of this year's Ngaio Marsh Awards will be announced at the WORD Christchurch Festival, 29 August to 2 September. 

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