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Backcountry mystery outshone big city crime at WORD Christchurch Festival on Saturday evening as Alan Carter and Jennifer Lane were named the winners of the 2018 Ngaio Marsh Awards.

Both authors' winning books involve deadly deeds set against small towns and rural landscapes. Carter scooped the Best Novel prize for MARLBOROUGH MAN (Fremantle Press), a thrilling tale centred on an ex-undercover agent from England trying to resettle into a quieter life far distanced from his dangerous past; now a country cop patrolling the seemingly idyllic valleys and waterways of the Top of the South.

“A terrific, full-throated crime thriller that puts the freshest of spins on the cop-with-a-past trope,” said the judges. “Carter is a first-class wordsmith with a particular talent for authentic dialogue. The novel’s setting wholly embraces the people and action, and the overall effect is powerful and persuasive.”

Lane is an experienced short story writer, published by magazines and journals on both sides of the Tasman, who won a New Zealand Book Month prize in 2007. Her debut novel ALL OUR SECRETS (Rosa Mira Books) grew out of one of her short stories, evolving over more than a decade of work. Gracie is a bullied adolescent from a troubled family in the fictional Australian town of Coongahoola. When the town’s famed ‘River Children’ start vanishing, Gracie knows what no-one else does: who is responsible.

“A very assured debut sitting somewhere between something aimed at older teen readers and something very readable for adults, ALL OUR SECRETS is strongly voiced, has a great sense of place, wonderfully drawn characters, and an excellent plot,” said the judging panel. “It's an absolute gem.” The Anzac spirit is alive and well with this year’s winners, noted Ngaios founder Craig Sisterson, as both Carter and Lane spent significant chunks of their lives in Australia before choosing to make New Zealand their home. Carter, originally from the north of England, won a Ned Kelly Award(link is external) for his debut crime novel in 2011, before crossing the Tasman to live on a farm in a valley in Marlborough in recent years.

“It has been another remarkable year for New Zealand crime and mystery writing,” said Sisterson. “We had a record number of entries, a big influx of exciting new voices, and the welcome return of some of our great crime storytellers from the 1990s and early 2000s, including Stella Duffy and Edmund Bohan.”

Carter won a Ngaios trophy, special edition of a Dame Ngaio book, and a $1,000 cash prize courtesy of WORD Christchurch. Lane won a trophy, book, and a cash prize from the Ngaio Marsh Awards.

“Decades ago a remarkable woman from Christchurch was renowned globally as one of the biggest names in the books world,” said Sisterson. “So it’s only fitting that awards in Dame Ngaio’s name are now showcasing just how world-class many of our modern-day Kiwi writers are too.”

For more information about the Ngaio Marsh Awards, contact the Judging Convenor: craigsisterson@hotmail.com(link sends e-mail) or ngaiomarshaward@gmail.com(link sends e-mail).

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A new series from Ned Kelly winning author Alan Carter, this time set in New Zealand. From the Blurb: Nick Chester is working as a sergeant for the Havelock police in the Marlborough Sound, at the top of New Zealand’s South Island. If the river isn’t flooded and the land hasn’t slipped, it’s paradise. Unless you are also hiding from a ruthless man with a grudge, in which case, remote beauty has its own kind of danger. In the last couple of weeks, two local boys have vanished. Their bodies are found, but the Pied Piper is still at large.

Marlborough Man is a gripping story about the hunter and the hunted, and about what happens when evil takes hold in a small town.

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The River Picnic was one of the biggest events that ever took place in Coongahoola, and even wilder than the street party the night Malcolm Fraser became Prime Minister. The adults spoke about it in whispers and only when they thought us kids were out of earshot. All I knew for sure, apart from the fact that Stu Bailey’s wife drowned that night in the Bagooli River, was that four times more babies than usual were born the following October and not all of them looked like their dads.

A girl called Gracie.

A small town called Coongahoola, with the dark Bagooli River running through it.

The Bleeders — hundreds of ‘Believers’ who move in and set up on the banks of the river. Who start buying up the town, and winning souls.

The River Children — born in the aftermath of the infamous River Picnic. They start to go missing, one after the other.

Gracie Barrett, the naively savvy spokesperson for her chaotic family (promiscuous dad, angry mum, twins Lucky and Grub, Elijah the River Child and fervent, prayerful Grandma Bett), for the kids who are taken, for the lurking fear that locks down the town and puts everyone under suspicion.

Gracie is funny and kind, bullied and anguished, and her life spirals out of control when she discovers she knows what no one else does: who is responsible.

All Our Secrets is jaunty, quirky and heart-achingly real. Coongahoola is where hope and fear collide, where tender adolescence is confronted by death, where kindness is a glimmer of light in the dark. 

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