Dorothy Johnston’s new novel Through a Camel’s Eye is no simple crime mystery. There’s an absence of gore and horror, but something else is present. An eerie sense that waves crashing along the shore in the distance masks the sounds of misconduct; that the abundance of trees keeps the wrongdoings out of sight. Set in the small town of Queenscliff on the Bellarine Peninsula in Victoria, Johnston masterfully demonstrates how small towns can have a peaceful, serene appearance that disguise an ugly, confronting reality. The story centres on Anthea Merritt, who has just graduated from her training as a police officer and is forced into a small town as her first job. She quickly discovers the only work she will be assigned are menial tasks, with the long-term residents of the town scoffing at her newcomer status.
Her professional relationship with her boss, Constable Chris Blackie, is awkward. It is painfully obvious he prefers to work alone, and the presence of a young female cramps his style. So when a camel disappears from its paddock, Chris assigns the tedious task to Anthea. As she investigates, the residents of the town look at Anthea as if she is crazy; she is met with ridicule, and she settles into a melancholy about the direction her life has taken.
It is only when the coat of Margaret Benton, a woman who has gone missing, is discovered in a sand dune near the missing camel’s paddock that the situation brewing in Queenscliff takes an interesting but very dark turn. The two officers are forced to put aside their reservations to solve these confounding mysteries.
As Anthea and Chris begin to investigate both incidents simultaneously, the race towards the discovery of the camel and the circumstances around the missing woman are proving harder than anticipated. As they attempt detective work, the lack of authority that comes with a police department comprising of two individuals is a huge hindrance – their influence and resources are limited.
Through their questioning of those who live in this small sea side town, they encounter eclectic, strange, and intriguing characters. From the mute recluse Camilla Renfrew, to the rebellious teenagers bored of their repetitive surroundings, to the deceptively average personalities of the everyday citizen – the potential list of suspects is endless, presenting a confusing array of possibilities.
Johnston, however, takes this to a deeper level. Rather than just assembling clowns for entertainment, she focuses on the idiosyncrasies of these individuals and explores the sickness that can grow in the mind, both in the frantic blur of the city and the isolation and campiness of small towns, where not a lot changes and privacy is a foreign concept. She treats each character as their own person; complicated, flawed and relatable. She captures how anxiety and trauma are like an invasive hand in the mind, kneading its way in and twisting the psyche into various states of panic and delusion, opening doors one wishes would remain closed.
Due to the nature of the town and its inhabitants, particular details of this case, however small and irrelevant, are picked up by keen-eyed observers. A new person becomes a subject for discussion and a strange facial expression is a curious matter; all details that would most likely be missed in the frenzy of city streets.
Despite all the quirky characters and the backstories, I found I related most to Anthea, who embodies all the reactions, irritations, joys and questions that I would have if I were her in her shoes. On the surface, she may appear ordinary, but, along with Chris Blackie, they are revealed as multidimensional through Johnston’s masterful inner dialogue and well developed characterisation.
A mark of a great crime mystery is the tension it creates in the reader. Solving the confounding mystery of the camel and the missing woman catapulted me all the way to the end, posing the questions: Who stole the camel? Who murdered Margaret Benton? Are the incidents connected?
The best part of this novel were how, on the surface, Anthea and Chris seem ordinary and their jobs seem less significant than those who work in areas with higher crime rates. But the way they are written provides an alternate story. Characters that reflect real people make you feel as if you are standing right there in the story, experiencing what they are seeing and feeling. Johnston achieves this, as well as exploring hard-hitting issues like post-traumatic stress, depression and anxiety in an authentic way.