In the foreword to Southern Cross Crime, published this week in ebook and audiobook (paperback publication delayed until 24 September due to COVID-19), CWA Gold Dagger winner Michael Robotham calls the book “a long overdue guide to the very best in Australian and New Zealand crime fiction, film and TV drama, put together by one of the world’s most knowledgeable and respected reviewers and interviewers, Craig Sisterson”.
Sisterson is a lawyer turned features writer and crime fiction expert from New Zealand who currently lives in London. He writes for newspapers and magazines in several countries. In recent years he’s interviewed hundreds of crime writers and talked about the genre on national radio, top podcasts, and onstage at festivals on three continents. He’s been a judge of the McIlvanney Prize and Ned Kelly Awards and is founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards and co-founder of Rotorua Noir. Southern Cross Crime (Oldcastle Books) is his first book.
What inspired you to write Southern Cross Crime?
It’s one of those projects that came together from a lot of threads over time, to the point where the book now seems (and several friends have said this to me) an inevitable outcome of a few different things I’d been doing over the years.
I’ve always loved mystery fiction, since I was a wee kid growing up in a small-town at the top of the South Island of New Zealand, devouring the Hardy Boys, Agatha Christie, and Sherlock Holmes. As a reader I love discovering new-to-me authors to enjoy, alongside old favourites, and as a reviewer and features writer I love shining a light on a diverse array of crime storytellers. Alongside some other crime fiction reviewers spread across the world, I used to participate in some ‘Global Reading Challenges’, and it was always fun to showcase some antipodean crime writers who’d become new discoveries for my overseas peers.
Some of the first author interviews I did for magazines, more than a decade ago, were with Australian and New Zealand crime writers, so for quite a while I’ve been aware of some really terrific antipodean storytellers, even if their books weren’t readily available in the UK and US at the time. In more recent years I’ve really enjoyed Barry Forshaw’s ‘Noir’ series of Pocket Essential guides to European, Nordic, British, and American crime fiction, and as the likes of Jane Harper’s The Dry began making a big mark globally and more and more Australian and New Zealand crime writers got published in the UK, I began to wonder if there might be a place for a similar guide to Australian and New Zealand crime writing.
Barry was very generous when I ran the idea past him back in 2018, and he even introduced me to his publisher and recommended that I be the person to write such a book.
The result is Southern Cross Crime.
What will crime fans find in the pages of Southern Cross Crime?
Like Barry’s books, it’s designed as a ‘readers guide’ to the crime fiction from my part of the world – mainly books but also some television and films. There are separate entries for around 250 authors, plus a few dozen TV shows and films. Other authors and books are listed at the end of various sections.
I’ve tried to write it in an accessible, magazine style, rather than an academic or encyclopaedic style, and there are doses of my own personality or writing style sprinkled throughout. Hopefully it will be an engaging and fun read for keen crime fiction fans, where they can dip in and out of it at their leisure to learn more about some authors they may already know, and discover many new-to-them storytellers too.
Along with the 300 or so storyteller and screen stories entries, I’ve also included a section in the book, ‘The Unusual Suspects’, of extended interviews with some of the leading figures of ‘Southern Cross Crime’. Unfortunately, we lost two legendary and influential Australian crime writers, Peter Corris and Peter Temple, the year I began working on the book. However, I’d interviewed Peter Corris several years ago for Good Reading magazine, so that feature is included in Southern Cross Crime, and thanks to Michael Robotham and the recollections of others I’ve also put together a special chapter about Peter Temple.
It wouldn’t have felt right to write this book and not highlight those two gentlemen.
What was a fun fact you uncovered during the research process for Southern Cross Crime?
Hmm… before writing the book I was already aware that the history of antipodean crime writing dated back to the earliest days of the detective fiction genre (in terms of novels and short stories). The bestselling detective novel of the 19th century wasn’t written by Wilkie Collins or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, as many might think, but by a New Zealand lawyer who’d moved to Melbourne to further his dreams of becoming a playwright (Fergus Hume, The Mystery of a Hansom Cab). One of the earliest writers of police tales was Mary Fortune, who wrote dozens from the Australian goldfields in the 1860s. Thanks to the research of the likes of Lucy Sussex, I was already aware of these historic figures.
But what I didn’t know was that the very first Edgar Award given out by the Mystery Writers of America back in 1954, actually went to an Australian. Charlotte Jay (pen name of Adelaide writer Geraldine Halls) won for Beat Not the Bones, a psychological thriller about an Australian woman who travels to New Guinea to uncover the truth behind her husband’s death. Talking to award-winning crime writer Alan Carter recently about that book (he’d come across it during his PhD studies), he described it as “fantastic, radical and well ahead of its time… A vivid, often hallucinatory, gut-punching beautifully written book".
So, while we’re experiencing an antipodean crime wave in recent years, the currents certainly run long and deep back through the decades and centuries.
What were the most enjoyable things, and the most challenging things, about writing this type of ‘readers guide’ book
The most enjoyable thing was to get to swim in the waters of Australian and New Zealand crime for an extended period of time. By the time I began writing Southern Cross Crime I’d already reviewed a couple of hundred antipodean crime novels for various outlets, and interviewed dozens of authors, but there was still so much more to explore and enjoy.
I also really enjoyed interviewing the likes of Garry Disher and Candice Fox, and Lindy Cameron of Sisters in Crime Australia, for ‘The Unusual Suspects’ section of Southern Cross Crime, adding to the authors I’d already interviewed over the years for various features.
The most challenging thing? Apart from the slog that is writing, re-writing and editing a project of this size (enjoyable and frustrating in equal measure), the toughest thing was probably settling on who got included and who didn’t. You might think that 300 entries would be plenty, but the health of modern Australian and New Zealand crime writing is such that dozens of interesting authors have still been left out. That was tough, drawing the line while trying to showcase a wide variety of styles, settings, and storytellers. We simply couldn’t mention everyone. Early on I decided to focus on the ‘modern era’, from the mid-1990s (the last quarter century, give or take) when the Australian Crime Writers Association was established and the likes of Peter Temple and Paul Thomas began breaking through
Even so, I’m bracing myself for the inevitable ‘where’s so and so’? response.
What books do you have on your bedside table (or eReader) right now?
Well, I’m currently helping out with the longlisting for the 2020 Ngaio Marsh Awards – the international judging panel will consider the longlist and choose the finalists and winners later this year, so there are several New Zealand crime novels sitting there. Outside of those, I’ve just finished Fair Warning, the new one from Michael Connelly out next month, and The Thursday Murder Club, the debut from British TV host Richard Osman (both are excellent, in different ways). The hardcover I’ve just started is Walleye Junction, the third in Karin Salvalaggio’s terrific series about Montana investigator Macy Greeley, and the e-books I have on the go are Exit by Belinda Bauer and The Monsters We Make by Kali White.
How is Australian and New Zealand crime writing similar or different to British crime writing?
Well, Australia and New Zealand share many links to the United Kingdom: historically as part of the British Empire and now still being part of the Commonwealth, through language and various institutions (parliamentary and legal systems), trade, and sporting ties etc.
So there are strong links between our cultures, even though we’re on complete opposite sides of the globe. At the same time, as I realised more and more as I travelled abroad as an adult, Australia and New Zealand aren’t simply just little slices of Britain in the South Pacific. We have very different landscapes, different wildlife, different senses of humour. We’ve grown up with a mixture of cultural influences: British, American, and our own. Even though we have historic ties to Europe, we’re actually part of the South Pacific and closer to Asia.
All those differences, and others, play a part in the crime fiction we produce.
‘Southern Cross Crime’ (a collective term for Australian and New Zealand crime writing that was coined by Emma Viskic a couple of years ago), offers overseas mystery readers an exciting dive into an array of physical and social landscapes that blend familiar and exotic.
Australia and New Zealand are sibling nations in some ways, vastly different neighbours in others. There’s a kind of shared frontier spirit and connectiveness to the land somewhat akin to the American Southwest. In a relative sense, many Aussies and Kiwis have an adventurous nature and more laidback attitude. Both are sparsely populated island nations, but in very different ways. Australia spreads a population about half of England’s across a country the size of the continental United States, whereas New Zealand is slightly larger than all of Great Britain while having a population similar to Scotland. Australia is an arid nation with most of its populace living in coastal cities; New Zealand has a cooler climate full of mountains, forests, lakes, and lush countryside. Australia has several of the deadliest critters on the planet, New Zealand an abundance of unusual birdlife.
So both are very different to the UK, in several ways.
But while the stark landscapes of the Outback in books like The Dry or Scrublands may seem particularly exotic to British readers, there can be subtler differences in terms of sensibilities and sense of humour. In the way everyday Aussies and New Zealanders view the world and interact with it. “People talk about our landscapes, but I think it’s the humour that sets us apart a bit,” said Glasgow-based Australian author Helen Fitzgerald (The Cry, Ash Mountain) at a raucous session on antipodean crime I chaired at last year’s Newcastle Noir festival.
Last question. You have a dinner party for yourself and five antipodean crime writers, dead or alive. Who would the five be and why?
Bloody hell, that’s a tough choice! Okay, okay, I’ll play. Hmm… I’ve had such a great time with many Aussie and Kiwi crime writers at various festivals and events (and in the bar) at home and overseas, but rather than picking a great crew from past adventures, I’m going to put together a dinner party full of people I’ve never met in person.
Let’s start with the Grande Dame herself, Ngaio Marsh. From all accounts she was a fascinating person, and I’d love to chat to her about Shakespeare, crime writing, and splitting life between New Zealand and the UK. Let’s add the late great Peter Temple, who I’m sure could bring plenty to the party. A little swerve here, but I’m going to invite Aaron Pedersen, an Aboriginal actor who features heavily in the screen section of Southern Cross Crime. He’s a tremendous actor (Mystery Road, Jack Irish, The Circuit, City Homicide, etc) who grew up in the Outback and has led a fascinating life (he cares for his brother, who has cerebral palsy). I’d love to meet him. Let’s add Kerry Greenwood, the creator of Phryne Fisher and one of the only active Australian women crime writers when Sisters in Crime Australia got started almost thirty years ago. And finally, Garry Disher. Masterful storyteller who’s one of the giants on whose shoulders the new generation have stood.
That’d be a great dinner party. We’d have a backyard barbeque. I’d cook scallops and other seafood for an entrée, some lamb and great cuts of fish for the main with some nice salads, and we can argue over the origins of Pavlova for dessert, with some boysenberry ice cream.
Damn, now I’m hungry.