A festival with the X factor.

The kiwi no 8 fencing wire and oily rag didn’t get in the way of Rotorua Noir delivering a well- planned and staged event, the first of its type in New Zealand, (Kia Ora Grant Nicol and Craig Sisterson). It was a huge success and our international author guests were excited to support us. From the hugely popular creative writing classes delivered by NZ’s modern-day Queen of Crime, to the fantastic welcome on

Paul Cleave’s comedic attempt at asking questions

Te Papaiouru Marae, to the panels and interviews where authors talked about their writing lives and their books, to the literary quiz on Saturday night to the Haere Ra/farewell on Sunday, this event had the X factor.

Many of the attending authors had been to a lot of similar events around the world but all concluded this one at Rotorua was special for them. Perhaps because it was limited to eighty people (sold out 3 months before the day) perhaps it was the tenth anniversary of the Ngaio Marsh crime awards, perhaps it was because people were able to meet up or reconnect with Craig Sisterson – founder of New Zealand’s crime award, or talk to other writers they admired, or the willingness of people to generously share their time. Perhaps it was all of those reasons, and more, that made the event special. To quote from Denis the erudite legal luminary in the great movie The Castle, ‘There’s no one section. It’s just the vibe of the thing.’

International author panel

I was given the honour of chairing the last panel, a panel of international best-selling crime authors: Alex Gray, Michael Robothom, Paul Cleave and Kati Hekkapelto.

Paul Cleave, Michael Robotham,Alex Gray, Kati Hekkapelto and Mark McGinn

Naturally, I’d done a bit of prep for this, but I had a bit of an “all is lost moment” when I realised that with all the panels and interviews before me, a lot of the material I intended to use had been discussed. And because those events had been well attended, more of the same may not have been a fitting finale. I had to quickly rethink my approach.


Authors put on trial

After introducing myself I told the audience I wanted to involve them differently -they would be a jury and the four accused with me on stage faced two criminal counts. First, they were charged with the wilful infliction of psychological torture of readers, causing said readers to disassociate from their normal world of reality. Second, they were charged with the prolonged and unreasonable detention of readers, holding them in suspense before allowing cathartic release.

I continued my opening address for the prosecution to alert them that they were not the only people to be accused of these crimes and that at an appropriate time, His Honour Justice Sisterson would try the co-offending publishers at a later date. I acknowledged that in respect of the normal order of trial events, this one was unusual in that they’d already heard character evidence given for three of the accused. About that evidence, I said, ‘You may well think that the witness Jackie Collins on behalf of Gray and Hekkapelto and the witness JP Pomare on behalf of Robotham were sincere in the praise and encouraging testimonies of the accused. But I submit they were naive and misguided as will be demonstrated when the accused answer my questions.’

I administered an oath to the collective accused that they would tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. I proceeded to cross examine each of them, drawing out the following behaviours, all of which they had admitted to on different occasions to give credibility to the charges:

Some confessions from the witness box

Alex Gray – when she was a former Scotland employee of the Department of Health and Social Services, Alex helped (in her words) “wide boys, chancers, and parents who drank their kids’ school uniform money.” She admitted this and the fact she was scoping for writing material and victim hunting. After 16 books she was clearly the ringleader of this gang of writing reprobates.


Michael Robothom – admitted trying to muscle in on an IRA money launderer but claimed he was only doing his job at the time, as a journalist. He admitted it was unusual for a journo to be abducted by men in balaclavas, and dumped at an airport and instructed to go home. Robotham also admitted consorting with a convicted murderer and at the time, one of Australia’s most wanted men. His plea in mitigation was that he identified the man to police and gave evidence against him. He was unable to say whether Joe O’Loughlin, the protagonist in a series of JO’L books had forgiven him for inflicting him Parkinson’s Disease.

Paul Cleave – claimed not to remember his past due to writing a character with Alzheimer’s Disease. His book Trust No One featured a crime writer struggling with the disease trying to determine whether he’d committed crimes or just written about them). And although Cleave confessed to being a cat lover, he identified Santa Claus as a drug addict who shot himself up with heroin, killed his elves, and shredded them in a machine that made toys out of them. In his defence, he claimed to be 15 years-old when he wrote that.

Kati Hiekkapelto

Kati Hiekkapelto – from Finland, worked the jury for sympathy, repeatedly asking for an interpreter. But she could not deny attending the Frankfurt Book Fair, proceeding to a public sauna dressed only in a towel and studded belt and disguised with a beard. She objected to my characterisation that the hair was false but admitted to testing her punk lyrics on fifty sweaty, naked men and women at the time. She confessed to occasionally searching the inside of her car for serial killers.

The verdict

I warned the jury not to be swayed by Grey’s Scottish accent and her grandmotherly persona, that she could be considered the ring-leader of the group, and after writing 16 books admitted to working on another. I concluded with asking the jury to find all the accused guilty of being seriously good crime writers and to deliver their verdict accordingly. They did so without even retiring to the jury room.

Craig Sisterson

Honouring ‘His Honour’

I then asked ‘His Honour Justice’ Craig Sisterson and ‘Associate’ Grant Nicol on to the stage. The judge had no idea what was happening next. In another unorthodox trial procedure, I delivered one final address.

‘Fantastic though this inaugural festival has been and acknowledging the idea and great mahi of Grant and Craig to make it work, we cannot say Haere Ra without acknowledging the 10th anniversary of the Ngaio Marsh founded by our Craig. Craig describes himself as a lapsed lawyer and a wandering writer but whether those descriptions are just cause for the peculiarity of not owning a cell phone is a moot point. Tonight, we recognise a lion-hearted man in every sense of the word.

‘Craig, generous with your time, your support of us as crime writers and in other charitable causes, your generosity seems to know no bounds. I’m sure it hasn’t always been easy for you living in the UK when a huge part of your heart is often tugging at you from Aotearoa, a place you love deeply. We’re all so grateful to Helen and Maddie for helping keep you strong.

‘You’re the best networker I’ve ever met and the greatest promoter of and ambassador for NZ crime writers around the world. You have an indomitable spirit: you are a taonga and our Rangatira and tonight we honour you and say, Kia ora, mate.’

Justice was done

An emotional moment between the organisers, Grant Nicol and Craig.

Grant presented Craig with a greenstone adze pendant, and he responded in typical form, acknowledging and thanking Grant for making the event happen and for everyone attending and making Rotorua Noir a very special event. Then it was time for drinks and kai and a very happy group of authors invaded a Thai restaurant.