Under southern skies: 13 fresh, exciting antipodean crime writers to try

12 Mins read
nighttime image of an Australian farmhouse with stars in the sky

Today we’re joined by Craig Sisterson, CWA Daggers judge and editor of Dark Deeds Down Under 2, a fascinating new anthology of Australian and New Zealand crime and thriller stories. Craig’s HRF Keating Award-shortlisted guidebook, Southern Cross Crime, shone a light on the treasure trove of modern Aussie and Kiwi crime storytelling. Now he takes us on a tour of some of the freshest and most exciting new voices to emerge from Down Under … 

Kia ora and giddayLet’s talk about Australia and New Zealand. What do you think of when you hear those words? For many readers, they’re two faraway countries at ‘the bottom of the world’. Linked together in many ways, very different in others. Perhaps you have been lucky enough to spend time there. A visit, a longer stint, a lifetime. But for most readers around the world, they’re two utterly unique, distant, exotic places only known from images, maybe some sporting results, film or music, or occasional headlines. Snapshots and vignettes. 

If at all.

Many years ago, I was a head counsellor at a wonderful summer camp in North Carolina. Cabins in the woods, forests and a lake. Days filled with adventure and activities. Think Meatballs, Wet Hot American Summer or Friday the 13th, without the homicidal parents.

It was eye-opening for me, who grew up curious to learn about many places around the world, to hear what and how much (or little) the US counsellors, campers and parents – or our fellow international counsellors from the northern hemisphere – knew about New Zealand or Australia. The everyday we’d grown up with was exotic and unfamiliar to most. 

The Lord of the Rings, All Blacks, Flight of the Conchords were pretty much the sum total of New Zealand knowledge (one British counsellor was a huge fan of Kiwi crime drama Outrageous Fortune, but he was an outlier). For Australia, beaches and deserts and deadly snakes, among other ‘crazy’ critters. Hugh Jackman as Wolverine. AC/DC. Russell Crowe. 

I was asked more than once how long it took to drive between our neighbouring countries, or whether there was a bridge (it’s a three-hour flight over water, at the closest – imagine Malta being the nearest landmass to the UK, with everything in between being ocean).

Nowadays, it seems that more people know a fair bit more about Australia and New Zealand, beyond the sports teams who punch far above their weight globally and a sprinkling of Hollywood stars who grew up there. And some of that is down to our fantastic crime and thriller authors. Much like Nordic noir took off worldwide thanks to the vengeful adventures of goth hacker Lisbeth Salander – even though other Scandi writers had been producing great books pre-Stieg Larsson – the global success of The Dry, Jane Harper’s superb Outback mystery that won the CWA Gold Dagger in 2017, certainly helped turn the eyes of Northern Hemisphere readers and publishers more and more towards lands ‘Down Under’.

We’ve always had some terrific crime writers in Australia and New Zealand, dating back more than 150 years. The bestselling mystery novel of the 19th Century didn’t star Sherlock Holmes and wasn’t written by Wilkie Collins or Edgar Allan Poe, but Fergus Hume. Who?

A Kiwi lawyer and wannabe playwright, Hume set his debut The Mystery of a Hansom Cab, which became arguably the first global blockbuster in detective fiction, in Melbourne. One of the earliest police procedural writers was Mary Fortune, who penned tales under a pseudonym from the Australian goldfields. And of course Dame Ngaio Marsh was a Kiwi.

But that was then. Let’s talk about now.

During the pandemic I published Southern Cross Crime, a readers’ guide which discussed a diverse array of more than 300 modern Australian and New Zealand crime writers, television shows and films. From international bestsellers and hit shows to highly regarded award-winners, hidden gems and fresh voices. 

Australia and New Zealand offer a veritable treasure trove of good and great crime storytelling that just continues to grow. In the past couple of years we’ve showcased some of that in our Dark Deeds Down Under anthologies, and today I wanted to highlight a baker’s dozen of top newer talents who’ve emerged since the pandemic, and whose novels will give you some insights into our countries and cultures, alongside being terrific crime reads. 

Let’s dive in. The water’s warm, and the shark nets are up.

Emma Styles

Photo of Australian author Emma Styles

There’s lots more to antipodean crime than ‘Outback Noir’, but as Emma Styles shows in her ripsnorter of a debut, No Country for Girls (2022), even when that exotic yet increasingly familiar setting is used, there are still lots of fresh and exciting tales to tell.

Styles, who grew up in Whadjuk Noongar country in Perth, plunges readers into the stark landscapes of Western Australia – a region about the size of Western Europe – as Aboriginal law student Nao and fists-first high schooler Charlie are thrust together and end up fleeing in a dead man’s pick-up truck with a bag of stolen gold bars under the seat.

Thelma and Louise meets Mad Max might be the Hollywood tagline; Styles brings a terrific rawness and strong voices to her gritty tale. It’s no surprise queen-of-crime Val McDermid, with her nose for terrific new voices, chose Styles for her New Blood panel in Harrogate, and No Country for Girls went on to win the 2023 Wilbur Smith Adventure Writing Prize. 

Tom Baragwanath

Photo of Tom Baragwanath New Zealand crime author

Published in hardcover in the UK and USA earlier this year, Paper Cage blends a refreshing protagonist, subtle exploration of real-world issues, acute portrayal of small-town life, and some beautiful writing. The result? For me, Paris-based Kiwi author Tom Baragwanath’s first novel sits comfortably among the top shelf of all crime fiction debuts from recent years.

Lorraine Henry is used to being overlooked. The middle-aged police records clerk still works at the small-town station where her Māori husband Frank worked and died, and sneaks rent money to her niece Sheena, who has a young son and a gang member boyfriend. But when local children start disappearing and her colleagues drag their feet, Lorraine teams with visiting city detective Justin Hayes, only for a stand-off between police and gang members to go horribly wrong. Baragwanath’s first novel is a stylish, multi-layered rural noir set in his home region of the Wairarapa in New Zealand’s lower North Island that introduces a fascinating heroine and bodes well for plenty more to come.  

Dinuka McKenzie

Photo of Dinuka McKenzie Australian crime author

In late 2021, modern-day Aussie crime queen Emma Viskic alerted me to a new talent whose debut would hit shelves in the coming months. That huge talent is Dinuka McKenzie; the book was The Torrent, a superb novel which swaps the scorching heat and drought readers often associate with Australia, à la The Dry or Scrublands, for deadly floods.

DS Kate Miles, a week away from maternity leave, is looking into the drowning of a local man and the brutal robbery of a McDonalds. A fascinating heroine who shares McKenzie’s Sri Lankan-Australian heritage, Mills juggles pregnancy anxiety with cases that prove more than they seem. McKenzie takes readers on a journey full of small-town colour, great plotting, a fascinating cast. The third in the series, Tipping Point, will be published in the UK in July 2024, and for those who like origin stories, check out McKenzie’s prequel short story, Skin Deep, that she specially wrote for the first Dark Deeds Down Under anthology.

Jacqueline Bublitz

Jacqueline Bublitz Australian crime author

While I hate the phrase ‘transcends the genre’ because it implies genre fiction is lesser or smaller, rather than something that evolves and contains quality and diversity, New Zealand author Jacqueline Bublitz certainly stretched what we usually see with her outstanding, CWA Gold Dagger-shortlisted debut Before You Knew My Name.

Ruby Jones is a thirtysomething visitor to New York who spots a young woman’s body while out jogging in the park. But rather than us then following the cops on their investigation, Bublitz’s brave, trope-challenging debut unfolds through the eyes of Ruby and the ‘Jane Doe’ victim, Alice Lee, who had fled Midwest family tragedy and bad decisions with a controlling older man. A beguiling, astonishing tale that deep dives into the victim and the witness and who they are or were; there’s an enchanting warmth to this tale sparked by a horrifying deed. Rich characterisation of female lives and fears and desires. Superb. Bublitz returns later this year with Leave the Girls Behind, another female-centred thriller. 

Peter Papathanasiou

Photo of Australian crime author Peter Papathanasiou

The brutal death of a popular schoolteacher in a battered Outback town led to an exploration of Australia’s treatment of refugees in Greek-Australian Peter Papathanasiou’s excellent first crime novel The Stoning, which Dr Noir, Jacky Collins, described as “more like an experience, than reading a story”

DS Georgios ‘George’ Manolis is sent from the big city to his childhood hometown Cobb, a derelict shadow of its thriving past, to help local cops investigate the titular killing and douse escalating reprisals against asylum seekers in a nearby detention centre. Papathanasiou doesn’t pull any punches as he delivers Outback noir with a clear-eyed look at hypocrisies old and new, and some of the ugly sides of modern life in the ‘Lucky Country’.

The adventures continue with The Invisible, where a burnt-out Manolis digs into a bizarre disappearance while holidaying in Greece, then The Pit, where his colleague Sparrow, an Aboriginal constable, takes the limelight as a dying man confessing to murder leads him on a merry dance into the mining regions of Western Australia. 

Ashley Kalagian Blunt

Photo of Australian crime author Ashley Kalagian Blunt

Attendees of last year’s Bloody Scotland may recall a somewhat terrifying late night panel Ashley Kalagian Blunt was part of with Pascal Engman and Lisa Ballantyne on the dangers of the dark web. Her first crime novel, Dark Mode, following a memoir about being a new Australian and a novella relating to the ongoing impact of the Armenian genocide (Kalagian Blunt was born in Canada, of Armenian heritage), digs into those all-too-real terrors. 

Reagan Carson is an enigmatic woman who runs a Sydney garden centre and shuns anything online. After she discovers the corpse of a young woman who looks eerily familiar, rather than informing the police, she hides away. Owing her parents money and getting pushed by her bank to start online marketing, Reagan runs into a handsome man, Bryce, who helps her with this and becomes her boyfriend. Cryptic, then threatening messages start. Is someone targeting Reagan? Who can she trust? Kalagian Blunt spins a twist-filled tale that will have you eager for whatever comes next.

Anna Downes

Photo of Australian crime author Anna Downes

After appearing in British television dramas EastEnders, Casualty, Holby City, and Dalziel and Pascoe, Anna Downes is now a bestselling thriller writer living on the New South Wales coast north of Sydney. Her atmospheric and unsettling debut, The Safe Place (2020), was inspired by her experiences working as a housekeeper on a remote French estate, and was shortlisted for the Davitt Awards in Australia. 

Downes quickly caught the attention of readers and writers in both hemispheres, and has been praised as an exciting new talent by the likes of Chris Hammer, JP Pomare and Gytha Lodge. After her debut about a Londoner entangled in a family’s strange rules and dangerous secrets, Downes brought her next tales to her adopted homeland of Australia, along with a story, Something to do in the Dark, that immersed readers in online therapy in Dark Deeds Down Under 2. In The Shadow House a single mother flees trauma, only to stumble into her new community’s own secrets. Downes’ latest, Red River Road, is published internationally later this year.

Michael Bennett

Photo of New Zealand crime author Michael Bennett

Another of Val McDermid’s new blood selections from the 2022 Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival, Māori filmmaker and author Michael Bennett (Ngāti Pikiao, Ngāti Whakaue) has won multiple awards across every storytelling form he’s tried, from writing and directing films and TV, to writing a true crime book, to now crime fiction.

Bennett’s outstanding first crime novel, Better the Blood, introduced Auckland detective Hana Westerman, who must track a serial killer seeking to rebalance the wrongs of colonisation, while dealing with a headstrong daughter, working with her ex-husband, and cultural tensions of being a minority in the police force. Bennett’s blend of exciting storylines, rich and varied characters, and fresh perspectives on underlying issues – like McKenzie’s, discussed above – is the epitome of the welcome and overdue expansion of the genre we love as a more diverse range of voices increasingly come to the fore. In recent weeks, the second Hana Westerman tale, Return to Blood, was published in the UK, United States, Australia and New Zealand. Hopefully there is much more to come. 

Hayley Scrivenor

Photo of Australian crime author Hayley Scrivenor

Like Bennett, Wollongong author Hayley Scrivenor’s excellent debut, Dirt Town (aka Dirt Creek in the USA) won or was shortlisted for multiple book awards on three continents. Last year, the intimate portrait of a small community torn by the disappearance of adolescent Esther Bianchi, told via kaleidoscopic narration, scooped the CWA John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger. Scrivenor, who lives on Dharawal country on the east coast of Australia, plunges readers into Durton, a sunburnt outpost of ‘dirt and hurt’, via the eyes of a Sydney detective and missing persons expert, Esther’s mother Constance, her two school friends Ronnie and Lewis, and an omniscient ‘We’; a Greek chorus of unidentified Durton children.

Scrivenor throws fresh ingredients into the Outback Noir stew, but her greatest triumph is exquisite characterisation, as she deftly brings various townsfolk to vivid life, along with the intricate tapestry of their connections, secrets, feuds, prejudices and (mis)perceptions. A character-centric crime novel imbued with humanity and hurt. Scrivenor’s next novel, Girl Falling, is one of my most-anticipated 2024 reads.

Rose Carlyle

Photo of Australian crime author Rose Carlyle

Readers who prefer psychological thrills and glamorous locations to gritty rural tales or urban noir should try Auckland law professor turned author Rose Carlyle’s thrillers. Her 2020 debut The Girl in the Mirror, a big international bestseller, twisted and turned its way from Thailand to the Seychelles and back to Australia as a massive inheritance induces nefarious acts. Twins Iris and Summer are near-identical on the outside, but have vastly different interior worlds. Our narrator Iris has always felt second-best to her charming, marginally older, sister. But when Summer calls from Thailand, distraught, Iris flies to her aid.

Later, tragedy strikes on the high seas and Summer’s husband Adam mistakes Iris for his own wife. Could she change her whole life with a lie? Carlyle adroitly walks readers along a tightrope between empathy and suspicion, and crafts a tense, compulsive tale where reader sympathies shift like sands scoured by ocean waves. The Girl in the Mirror has more twists than a bowline. Carlyle’s second thriller, No One Will Know, is out in October. 

Julie Janson

Photo of Australian crime author Julie Janson

A Burruberongal woman of the Darug Aboriginal Nation, Julie Janson is a very welcome, still too-rare indigenous voice in crime fiction. Like Bennett, Janson is a First Nations writer who has honed her storytelling talents and won awards in other forms (playwright, poet) before turning to crime to explore big issues and systemic injustice in a powerful, page-whirring tale. 

In Madukka the River Serpent, Aunty June is a respected elder living in a small town on the Darling River, and newly minted private investigator after completing a TAFE certificate. When her nephew Thommo, a Murri environmental activist, goes missing the local gungie (police) refuse to take it seriously. Aunty June decides to investigate, coming up against commercial farmers, bikies, racism and water theft. Can she find her way through the lies and corruption to help her people and the sacred river? Given her terrific first effort, we can only hope Janson, who says she wanted to draw attention to the unfolding ecological and human disaster she’s witnessed along the Darling River, will continue exploring issues via crime fiction.

Gabriel Bergmoser

Photo of Australian crime author Gabriel Bergmoser

Born in New Zealand and raised in Mansfield, a small Australian town best known as the burial place for police officers killed by notorious bush ranger Ned Kelly and his gang, it’s perhaps no surprise Gabriel Bergmoser gravitated towards action-packed tales of modern-day outlaws after some years as a podcaster, screenwriter, playwright and YA author. 

A precocious storytelling talent, Bergmoser’s first adult novel, The Hunted, was an assured, gritty and violent slice of Outback noir as the lives of a grandfather who runs a gas station in the middle of nowhere, a couple on a road trip, and an injured young woman all collide, igniting a terrifying tale that dances along the tightrope between thriller and horror. No surprise it was snapped up for screen adaptation. Bergmoser’s next book, The Inheritance, expanded readers’ understanding of Maggie, a young woman who’s a ‘cross between Wonder Woman and Mad Max’. While the darkness may be too much for some, for readers who love the likes of Chris Carter, Mo Hayder or Paul Cleave, Bergmoser is a must-read. 

Shelley Burr

Photo of Australian crime author Shelley Burr

Like Baragwanath and McKenzie, former environmental policy worker Shelly Burr won a major unpublished writing prize for her first novel, Wake; in this case the CWA Debut Dagger (now Emerging Authors Dagger). Over the years that prize has helped some terrific voices towards publication, including Louise Penny, Amer Anwer, Victoria Selman, Winnie M Li and MW Craven. In Wake, which following publication became a bestseller and won a 2023 Ned Kelly Award, young private eye Lane Holland travels to a tiny Outback town to try to solve the infamous disappearance of a young girl 19 years ago. The girl’s twin still lives on the family farm, true crime fanatics have plenty theories, and everyone’s keeping secrets.

Recently, Burr proved she was no one-hit wonder with Murder Town. Gemma Guillory is a lifelong resident of Rainier, a speck on a map most known for tragedy; 17 years ago a teenage Gemma stared down a serial killer. When a big city tour operator wanting to establish true crime tours is the victim of a copycat slaying, Gemma must battle fears present and past. A superb second effort that delivers tension and humanity, and deftly blends page-turning crime tale with explorations of people, place and trauma.

Craig Sisterson is a sports-loving book nerd from New Zealand. A lawyer turned features writer, he now lives in London and writes for newspapers and magazines in several countries. He’s interviewed hundreds of authors and talked about books on national radio, top podcasts and onstage at festivals on three continents. Craig is also a judge for several UK and Australasian prizes, is founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards, co-founder of Rotorua Noir festival, editor of the Dark Deeds Down Under anthologies, and author of non-fiction book, Southern Cross Crime.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Related posts

Dark Deeds Down Under 2 edited by Craig Sisterson

In rugby, Australia and New Zealand are sworn enemies. Off the pitch, they have more in common than they care to admit, whether it’s their shared landscapes, culture, troubled histories or love of the great outdoors. When it comes to crime fiction tastes are similar…

Return to Blood by Michael Bennett

In his debut novel, Better the Blood, New Zealand crime author Michael Bennett explored the wounds and after effects of colonialism and picked up the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best First Novel. In this sequel, Hana Westerman, a Māori detective in the Auckland Crime Investigation…

The Gone: Kiwi/Irish crime show comes to BBC Four

While the Irish broadcaster RTÉ may not have the resources of the BBC or HBO, it has canny knack for collaborating with producers in other countries to jointly invest in high-quality crime shows. Hidden Assets was surprisingly good, given the unlikely linkup between an Irish…
Crime Fiction Lover