Crime writer of the year: Kelly Dennett

Kelly Dennett writes about winning the prize on Saturday night for best book of non-fiction at the annual Ngaio Marsh crime writing awards

My phone had lit up with lovely messages from friends and family on Saturday night after I inexplicably won the 2019 Ngaio Marsh crime-writing award for best book of non-fiction – and  among them was a stranger telling me, and the world, what I had secretly been thinking ever since my  book, The Short Life and Mysterious Death of Jane Furlong, was published: it sucked. He or she tweeted, “I’m surprised by this”, meaning my book had won the award. “I thought it was exploitative and utterly self-absorbed.”

The day Awa Press sent me my first copy of the book, I drove it all the way to my mother, 40 minutes away in rural south Auckland, desperate to get it out of my house. I still haven’t read it in its published form, and since it went to press I’ve been waiting patiently for the day someone knocks on my door and tells me they’ve come to revoke my author’s licence. I hadn't quite stopped trembling after having to give a my acceptance speech when I received the tweet. Licence revoked.

Three years ago I was a young, ambitious and slightly naive reporter who blithely began writing about the true unsolved murder of Jane Furlong. She was a teenage sex worker and her vanishing became a sensation in the early 90s. Decades on, though, her story was really only remembered by her friends, family, a handful of hardworking detectives, and a few journalists.

I spent weekends and evenings interviewing people in Jane’s life, spending time with her mother Judith and best friend Amanda, as well as researching at the public library, copying papers and tracking down numbers and addresses for retired police and peripheral characters in Jane’s life. I wrote as I went along, desperate and perhaps too quick to get everything down. I got a lot of work done when I holed up in Auckland’s Surrey Hotel for a week as winner of the 2016 Surrey Hotel writer’s residency award.

The more I dug, the less sure I became of everything I knew about Jane and her life. Now, 18 months after The Short Life and Mysterious Death of Jane Furlong was published, I’m still not sure that what I produced is anything more than the internal monologue of a young woman trying to make sense of a mystery, and her own life. (And I mean me. So yes, probably a bit self-absorbed.)

If I think too long about it, I think about all the things I could have done better, and all the people who might have been hurt or distressed by what I wrote, and all the avenues I could have pursued in search of the truth, but didn’t because quite honestly I had murder-mystery fatigue.

I think about how my writing wasn’t as tight as it could have been, and a few minor facts I got wrong. I think about the incredible investigative journalists who do brilliant work day in and day out and how their work is more meaningful. I think about the time Steve Braunias interviewed me on stage at the Wellington Readers and Writers Festival and an audience member asked about journalists’ capacity to solve cases where police have failed. I answered dumbly about the difficulties of gaining access to documentation, and Steve piped up with a beautiful reminder of the work of Donna Chisholm in the David Dougherty case, Phil Taylor in the Susan Burdett case, and Mike White in the ongoing Mark Lundy case.

In June this year Jane’s story featured on a TVNZ episode of Cold Case. I didn’t watch it but I’ve been told the programme mirrored the information in my book. It felt like maybe the trail I trod was the right one after all, but nobody had noticed until the cameras rolled in.

There’s a niggling feeling in me that Jane’s killer will see their day in court. I know for sure that the detectives assigned to the case are still working on it and that even small pieces of information, tidbits bordering on rumour and gossip, are looked at.

I’m bolstered by significant breakthroughs in other unsolved murder cases that are years, even decades old. I often daydream about the day I get a phone call to say there’s been an arrest, and I think about returning to the Auckland District Court, where my career first started, to see the next chapter play out.

For now, this weekend brought a natural close to my own chapter. In a room full of crime junkies and quality writers at the awards ceremony held in Christchurch’s beautiful new library, I felt, for the first time, and only for a brief moment, like maybe I belonged.

Pathologist and The Cause of Death author Cynric Temple-Camp talked to me about brain matter and DNA and reminded us all that while we may have written stories about people’s lives, he, in fact, had seen the blood of the people he’d written about. Scott Bainbridge (who  wrote The Great New Zealand Train Robbery) told me about how he made breakthroughs of his own when researching the Jane Furlong murder, after her skeleton was found, in 2012. He saw her bones being carried away from the dunes she was found in at Port Waikato.

The night ended as all good nights do - with me in a bathtub in a nice hotel, eating McDonald’s. To my irritation, my tweeting critic deleted their snipe, which felt like losing a badge of honour. Having my fear finally realised was like seeing there are no monsters under the bed.

The Short Life and Mysterious Death of Jane Furlong by Kelly Dennett (Awa Press, $42)

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