Fresh voices came to the fore at WORD Christchurch Spring Festival on Saturday afternoon as Becky Manawatu and RWR McDonald were named the winners of the 2020 Ngaio Marsh Awards.

Both winners were first-time novelists, and while their winning books were different in many ways, each was told in large part from the perspective of young children dealing with loss and violence in small-town New Zealand, each included a rich cast of diverse characters, and each expertly blended lighter moments with dark events in tense tales that could make readers gasp and laugh.

Manawatu (Ngāi Tahu) scooped the Best Novel prize for AUĒ (Makaro Press), a novel infused with domestic violence and gang life, told from the perspectives of eight-year-old Arama, his teenage brother Tauriki, and young woman Jade. She’s the first debut author to win Best Novel since 2010. 

"A breath-taking expose of lives lived on the margins, and the fight for redemption and absolution,” said the judges. “Manawatu doesn’t use crime as a plot device but shows it woven into the fabric of her characters’ lives, defining them, sometimes destroying them, and serving as a perverse unifier.”

AUĒ joins THIS MORTAL BOY by Fiona Kidman as the only novels to have won both the Ngaio Marsh Award and the Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction at the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards.

RWR McDonald grew up on a sheep and deer farm in South Otago, and now lives in Melbourne with his two daughters and extended rainbow family. He won the 2020 Ngaio Marsh Award for Best First Novel for THE NANCYS (Allen & Unwin), an exuberant small-town murder mystery where eleven-year-old Tippy Chan teams with her visiting uncle and his boyfriend to solve the murder of her teacher.

“Hilarious and inventive; the dynamic between the young protagonist and the adult characters is unusual and special,” said the judges. “A clever hat-tip to one of the most indelible female characters in the genre, and a story that blends crime and humour in unexpected ways.”

It’s a little surreal to realise this is the tenth anniversary of the Ngaio Marsh Awards, said founder Craig Sisterson. The awards were established in 2010 to celebrate excellence in local crime, mystery, thriller, and suspense writing. Sisterson noted that the Ngaios were modelled somewhat on the Hammett Prize in North America, which has been won by the likes of Margaret Atwood and focuses on ‘literary excellence’ in novels entwined with crime, so isn’t restricted to detective novels or whodunnits.

“We’ve been blessed to have some extraordinary books to consider and celebrate over the past decade, and this year has further added to the growing depth and diversity of local crime writing.”

Becky Manawatu received a trophy and $1,000 courtesy of WORD Christchurch. McDonald won a trophy and cash prize from the Ngaio Marsh Awards. “We feel very fortunate to have been able to hold a real life event before a live audience to celebrate our finalists and winners this year,” said Sisterson. “Huge thanks to Rachael King and WORD Christchurch for all their hard work in such a challenging year, as well as for their ongoing support every year since we launched in 2010.”

For more information about the Ngaio Marsh Awards, contact the Judging Convenor: or

Year of Publication

Taukiri was born into sorrow. Auē can be heard in the sound of the sea he loves and hates, and in the music he draws out of the guitar that was his father’s. It spills out of the gang violence that killed his father and sent his mother into hiding, and the shame he feels about abandoning his eight-year-old brother to a violent home.

But Ārama is braver than he looks, and he has a friend and his friend has a dog, and the three of them together might just be strong enough to turn back the tide of sorrow. As long as there’s aroha to give and stories to tell and a good supply of plasters.

Here is a novel that is both raw and sublime, a compelling new voice in New Zealand fiction. Haere mai, Becky Manawatu.

Year of Publication
Book Number (in series)

A schoolgirl and her uncle and his boyfriend have two weeks to solve a murder in a small town style forgot…

'A delight - moving and hilarious. I loved every minute I spent with these characters.' - Paddy O'Reilly, author of The Wonders 

Tippy Chan is eleven and lives in a small town in a very quiet part of the world - the place her Uncle Pike escaped from the first chance he got as a teenager. Now Pike is back with his new boyfriend Devon to look after Tippy while her mum's on a cruise.

Tippy is in love with her uncle's old Nancy Drew books, especially the early ones where Nancy was sixteen and did whatever she wanted. She wants to be Nancy and is desperate to solve a real mystery. When her teacher's body is found beside Riverstone's only traffic light, Tippy's moment has arrived. She and her minders form The Nancys, a secret amateur detective club. 

But what starts as a bonding and sightseeing adventure quickly morphs into something far more dangerous. A wrongful arrest, a close call with the murderer, and an intervention from Tippy's mum all conspire against The Nancys. But regardless of their own safety, and despite the constant distraction of questionable fashion choices in the town that style forgot, The Nancys know only they can stop the killer from striking again.

The Nancys is gripping and glorious, a heart-warming novel for anyone who's ever felt they were on the outside looking in. At its heart it is about the family we make and how we must summon the courage to face the truth, no matter what the cost may be. 

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Submitted by Karen on Mon, 02/11/2020 - 12:42 pm