The Ngaio Marsh Awards honour New Zealand’s best crime writing and winners in three categories for the 2017 awards will be announced in October. As part of leadup festivities to that announcement there is a month-long blog tour focusing on all the books and authors which have been shortlisted in one of the categories. My stopover on the tour introduces Simon Wyatt’s THE STUDENT BODY which is one of the five contenders in the best first crime novel category.
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About the book
The novel opens with Nick Knight, new to the role of Supervisor in the West Auckland Police’s Criminal Investigation Branch, being advised that 15 year old Natasha Johnson has been found dead in the grounds where her school class has been camping. Knight and his team are soon on the way to the scene and down to business with the myriad tasks requiring completion all being attended to with a minimum of fuss and appropriate professionalism.
Being a major case a lot of police are assigned to it and Knight’s team is responsible for one component: suspects. Other parts of the larger squad are responsible for evidence, witnesses and so on. I found it interesting to learn that this is how things are divided up in reality, at least in this part of New Zealand. So we spend most time learning about who might have killed Natasha. One of the teachers who was chaperoning the school camp? A fellow student? A suspicious outsider known to lurk in the area and ‘pleasure himself’ at will? The sometimes frustrating grunt work needed to rule people out of (or into) suspicion is well depicted and Wyatt also does a great job of exposing the reality of how investigations like this have to force their way into the private lives of many people, most of whom will be proven to have nothing to do with the crime but still have their lives turned upside down.
THE STUDENT BODY is squarely in the police procedural quadrant of the crime genre spectrum. Not only is its central character an active policeman but the story is told in the first-person perspective. The upside to this is that there is an authentic, quite immersive feel to the investigative elements of the novel: the reader really does get some sense of what it must be like to be involved with a fast-moving, high profile case. The pressure from everywhere – superior officers, victim’s family, the media – is quite palpable and Knight has to work hard to keep his own and his team’s morale up at times. The other consequence of Wyatt’s narrative choices is that Knight’s view of events is naturally limited – we can never know what’s going on with other team members or those affected by Natasha’s death unless Knight is present or being told first-hand. I did feel a few times like I was missing out on parts of the story – such as how Natasha’s parents and best friend were dealing with the events – but can appreciate that wasn’t the story Wyatt has chosen to tell here (I’m just really nosy, I want to know everything).
Nick Knight is pretty well fleshed out as a character though for me this meant he was not always the nicest person to be around. Although he takes his job seriously and is, mostly, very professional he can also be quite laddish and towards the end of the novel displays a willingness to commit violence that I found a bit disturbing. Still he is funny and caring at times too. I guess like most of us Nick isn’t perfect so it is a very realistic depiction. There really isn’t space given the book’s length and style to get to know any of the other characters very well and I would have appreciated an alternative voice or wider perspective at times but that’s a minor quibble. I’m sure Nick Knight will have many fans.
Overall THE STUDENT BODY is a solid procedural with an authentic feel and will be enjoyed by those who like getting into the nitty gritty of a case unfolding. It offers a good sense of its New Zealand setting, giving me the itch to visit Piha beach for example, and the resolution is a genuine action-packed, nail-biter.
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About the author
The authentic feel to the procedural elements of THE STUDENT BODY undoubtedly stems from the fact that Simon Wyatt is a former police detective with a range of experience, including three years with the team that investigates crimes against children. He started writing after being struck with an autoimmune disease and while working through his recovery process. Although mostly recovered now Wyatt has since left the police force but is still very involved with detecting as an investigator with the Serious Fraud Office (a different arm NZ government). He is working on a second Nick Knight novel. For more information about Simon Wyatt and his writing process check out this half-hour interview on Radio New Zealand from late last year or head to his Facebook page.
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So far the Ngaio Marsh Awards Blog Tour has visited
- Liz Loves Books for an introduction to the finalists in the Best Crime Novel category
- Aust Crime Fiction for a review of Fin Bell‘s PANCAKE MONEY, a nominee in the Best Crime Novel category
- Alysontheblog for a review of Steve Braunias‘ true crime book SCENE OF THE CRIME
- Bibliophile Book Club for a Q&A with C.J. Carver whose novel SPARE ME THE TRUTH is nominated in the Best Crime Novel category
- Mysteries and More from Saskatchewan for a review of THE ICE SHROUD by Gordon Ell which is one of the nominees for the Best New Fiction award
- Mystery Fanfare – where Fin Bell, author of best crime nominee PANCAKE MONEY, has temporarily taken over Janet’s blog to discuss his writing, books and…well…failure
The tour continues until 1 October so there are plenty more blogs to visit to learn about the remaining books and authors honoured in this year’s Ngaio Marsh Awards.