If you’ve walked past a bookshop this week, then you’ve seen Christian White’s debut novel, The Nowhere Child. Suddenly it’s everywhere.

The crime thriller tells the story of Kim Leamy, a young woman in Melbourne leading an ordinary life until a mysterious American accountant finds her at work. He explains that she might be Sammy Went, a child who went missing from Kentucky in the ’90s.

Initially sceptical, Kim finds the mystery keeps eating away at her until finally she decides to investigate, setting off a series of events that draws her into the sinister underbelly of a small US town.

It’s a compelling story, and one that speaks to author Christian White’s status as a self-confessed true-crime nut. Even the most dedicated of crime fans is unlikely to be able to predict the twists and turns the narrative takes.

The book won the 2017 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript, awarded to a Victorian resident with an undistributed work of fiction.

“I’m so bad at getting stuff out there and showing anyone,” White says. “Just entering the competition was a big deal for me. I assumed that would be the end of it.”

The competition has launched some big careers. Past winners include Maxine Beneba Clarke and Melanie Cheng, and it’s where Jane Harper’s The Dry and Graeme Simsion’s The Rosie Project got their starts – both bestsellers that now have film adaptations on the cards.

Unpublished manuscript awards have been carving out a progressively larger niche in the Australian writing landscape, where the traditional approach of pitching work and securing a book deal can take years. Winning an award can mean bypassing that process – and sudden exposure on the world stage.

Tim Winton and Kate Grenville are both recipients of a Vogel Literary Award (awarded to an unpublished work by a writer under 35), and Hannah Kent’s novel Burial Rites won the Writing Australia Unpublished Manuscript Award in 2011 and has gone on to become an international bestseller.

White wrote The Nowhere Child in between an eclectic collection of casual jobs. There was no book deal, and no promise of publication. He had no guarantee it would ever see the light of day.

“It was never a question of should I do it – it was just a story I wanted to tell,” White says. “I’ve always dreamt about at least attempting a novel. This is the first one I’ve actually finished.”

Even before White was officially announced as the winner, things started to get hectic. “It was crazy,” he says. “There were publishing deals being offered, there was a bidding war, all this crazy stuff happened.”

White signed a deal with Melbourne-based publisher Affirm Press, and preparations were quickly made to release the book internationally.

“It wouldn’t have happened without that attention [from the competition],” White says. “It turned my manuscript from just another one on a huge stack into something that people want to read.”

The Nowhere Child has been out in Australia for less than a week, but White is already halfway through his second book. “My plan is to hit the ground running,” he says. “It’s a completely different feeling going from writing the first one – which I assumed no one would ever read – to writing the second one knowing that it will actually get published.”