In Dorothy Johnston’s Through A Camel’s Eye, the author provides a consistent stream of arresting, enigmatic images. The book, like its cover, offers dreamy glimpses into the internal lives of a quiet country town and its hard-working policemen. The ability to capture and harness a moment, almost pressing pause on the action to create a picture, is a cornerstone of great noir and crime writing. It is the poetic foundation of Nordic noir, popularised by Larsson, Mankell and others. Despite the fact it doesn’t have as cold and snowy a climate as Switzerland, Australia still provides fantastically eerie frozen moments if the right author is there to pick them out. Such is the case with Johnston’s Through A Camel’s Eye.
The book’s opening is a clear demonstration of this skill:
“In the pale green twilight, a woman was leading a young camel round a paddock. Camilla Renfrew stopped on the seaward side of the fence to watch. The woman was wearing jeans, a T-shirt, riding boots, and looked distinctly youthful too. Her short hair caught the light and glowed green-gold. She seem intent on what she was doing and did not glance in Camilla’s direction.
It was a trick of the twilight, Camilla thought, to make of fading a lasting brilliance, stretching the day out longer than it had any right to be. And this girl, with her long legs, striding with her long-legged beast, drawing him behind her on a rope - across a paddock in which new growth was just beginning to make its way through last year’s dead grass - this too, was a trick of the light, to hold the scene taut in an attitude of praise.”
There’s a lot going on here. Notice the twice mention of ‘green’ in the first paragraph. Once in reference to the twilight, the other in reference to the woman’s hair. We only get one mention of the fact that we’re in a coastal area with Camilla resting on the ‘seaward’ side of the fence, but the ocean feels present here, through the repetition of green. This adds a flavour to the dead grass as well. There’s sandy soil in the mind’s eye - even though sand is never mentioned.
The second paragraph is just two sentences. The second sentence paints a picture - conjuring the woman, the beast, the rope, the grass, the light, all in a single breath. Its a layered image, and the rhythm of the sentence supports this, building up clauses before holding it ‘taut’. The idea of ‘taut’ and the whole scene being a ‘trick’ also inevitably gives the image an uneasiness and tension. It is a crime novel after all, and even though this is a woman watching another woman walk a camel, there’s some sense of danger coming, some false pretence to the scene.
It is also, of course, beautiful. It’s a beautiful picture. But much like a good food writer will never write the word ‘delicious’, Dorothy never describes it as ‘a beautiful sunset’. Instead, she opts for clear and precise details. It gives us not only what the scene looks like, but what it feels like too.
An early introduction to character draws an instant and immediate image from the concentration on fine detail:
“…men who, when they age, age suddenly, shrinking and shrivelling, a thousand fine lines appearing all at once, their skin drying and flaking as though at the switching off of an internal sprinkler system.”
This poetic construction of nothing more than a gentleman’s skin creates a powerful image of character. We feel we not only know something about how this man looks, but how he feels, and his relationship with his age.
Such imagery and poetics is blistered across Dorothy’s work, making it readable and immensely enjoyable. Any lover of great crime will enjoy Through a Camel’s Eye. You can purchase a copy here.