Our CEO Jennifer McDonald reflects on crime fiction and sense of place ahead of exciting events with acclaimed crime writer Dorothy Johnston this week. This much I know - books take me places in my head, and I never have to leave my armchair or get up from my bed to arrive there. So much the better if the book I’m reading is a crime novel. I not only become intimately acquainted with the look and feel of a location, I get a glimpse of its darker underside as well. This is where I experience that strange combo of intrigue’s thrill while doing nothing more dangerous that sipping hot tea as I turn the pages.
It seems to me that crime novels in particular derive maximum benefit from the locations in which they are set - the more placid and benign-looking the location, the greater the import and impact of the crime.
Dorothy Johnston is an author who clearly understands this. She well remembers the blank stares and raised eyebrows that greeted the announcement that she was writing a series of crime novels (the Sandra Mahoney Quartet) set in Canberra of all places. In answer to those funny looks, Dorothy would quote another Canberra cohort and novelist, Margaret Innes who, with a nod in the direction of Joseph Conrad said, ‘You don’t have to go all the way to Africa to find the heart of darkness. It may be at the end of your street.’
The same could no doubt be said about Dorothy’s ‘sea change mystery’ novels set in the seemingly placid seaside town of Queenscliff on the Bellarine Peninsula. Her sentiments on this made it onto the back cover of Through a Camel’s Eye, the first in the series, and a novel that ‘juxtaposes the idyllic surroundings of a coastal Victorian town with the gravity of murder’.
The second book in the series – The Swan Island Connection – goes even further to expose the murky underbelly of its quaint seaside setting. A shocking murder rocks the town and the two local cops who preside over it – Constable Chris Blackie and his deputy, Anthea Merritt. They expect the investigation to be directed by detectives from the larger centre of Geelong, but are blindsided by the interest shown in the case by shadowy figures from the secret military training base that’s operated on Swan Island off the coast of Queenscliff for decades.
Use of the word ‘secret’ here is at best a misnomer and at worst an outright untruth – the locals have known since the year dot that Swan Island has been used for training spies. Last October when The Swan Island Connection was launched in Queenscliff I got a snap of Dorothy standing next to the well-fortified gate to the bridge connecting the island to the mainland, bearing a sign that says anything but clandestine.
The ‘gravity of murder’ set in a place as lovely as Queenscliff is further enhanced by the sheer ordinariness of the local police-people, where their work would normally comprise minor traffic infringements and dealing with the occasional Saturday night drunk. But when confronted with murder Chris and Anthea prove themselves anything but ordinary in the investigative stakes. Indeed, their knowledge of the town and the eclectic personalities among its permanent residents, are always the key factors in resolving the case.
This charming-yet-alarming coupling of benign locations and local cops who are normal human beings, with crimes like murder, reminds me of M.C. Beaton’s Hamish Macbeth series, set in the fictional west coast Scottish town of Lochdubh. Like Chris and Anthea, Constable Hamish Macbeth is a canny character whose knowledge of the town and its people is instrumental in solving murders that occur with staggering regularity in the area. There are upwards of 30 books in the series, all with death in the title and all belying the sleepy surroundings of rural Scotland in which they are set.
In a 2017 Sisters In Crime article entitled Sea Change or Tree Change? Negotiating the Scene of the Crime, Dorothy Johnston says, ‘I believe in using real place names and real historical and contemporary settings for my books. I think this gives my stories an authenticity they wouldn’t have if I invented places.’
Whether the location of a murder is real in the case of Johnston’s Queenscliff, or fictional in the case of Beaton’s Lochdubh, the original contention still holds. When it comes to writing (or reading) crime fiction, the sleepier the place in which the book is set the better!