There's only one gun in Zane Lovitt's crime fiction homage to the hard-boiled detective, The Midnight Promise, and that gun doesn't work.
Lovitt's tale of a cynical detective working Melbourne's Chinatown district was named best first fiction by the Australian Crime Writers' Association at a presentation ceremony on Saturday, proving the hard-nosed, crack-wise detectives and private investigators of yesteryear are alive and thriving, albeit with modern story twists.
The Ned Kellys are awarded annually to the best crime, thriller and mystery writing in Australia, with past winners including Peter Temple, Michael Robotham and Peter Corris.
Geoffrey McGeachin's Blackwattle Creek, the second novel featuring detective and ex-bomber pilot Charlie Berlin, edged out Malla Nunn's Silent Valley and political satirical thriller The Marmalade Files by Steve Lewis and Chris Uhlmann for the best novel award. Robin de Crespigny's The People Smuggler won the true crime category.
McGeachin is a Sydney-based photography teacher whose first book, Fat, Fifty & F***ED!, was published in 2004. His fifth novel, The Diggers Rest Hotel, won the 2011 Ned Kelly Award for best fiction.
"The noir detective is almost always an outsider caught up in circumstances he can't control and in reality for most of us that can also be our reality," says a delighted McGeachin.
"I think we read, and not just the detective noir genre, to see if anyone else feels the way we feel. We read to feel less alone.
"And the noir detective almost always gets through, despite the struggle, despite the pain, so I think it is about hope more than anything else."
Judges described Blackwattle Creek as a "flawless novel that offers everything one could wish for in crime fiction: an enveloping sense of time and place, well-drawn and compelling characters and a suspenseful story that rips along at a cracking pace while still allowing a thought-provoking theme to be explored".
Lovitt, 36, grew up reading Sherlock Holmes and the dark and suspenseful tales of Edgar Allen Poe, but was a documentary filmmaker before he took up writing five years ago.
"I'm not sure the hard-boiled detective has ever gone away," says Lovitt.
"I started with the classic conventions of the genre. I was interested in setting up the recognisable framework of the isolated and heavy-drinking private investigator whose next case walks through the door, and then we are off – but done in an interesting way. There's no car crashes, there's only one gun in the book, and it doesn't work, and there is a tiny reference to a case in which my detective is hired by someone who can't remember where they parked their car.
"I wasn't intending to create a larger-than-life story or a Jason Bourne or a Dirty Harry, with an Australian setting it behoves you to be more character-based and tell stories that are more realistic."
Lovitt is writing two more crime books and is not planning a return to filmmaking.
"The nature of filmmaking is it requires an enormous amount of self belief whereas in writing and other creative art forms having a little self doubt is very useful, you can create and destroy, and create and destroy until you're satisfied, and that's very much a watershed in my life.
"I went through most of my 20s not happy with what I was producing. I appreciate the autonomy of prose. The Midnight Promise was the first project that I really felt was something I would want to read."