Crime

Dorothy Johnston's Swan Island Connection

We're thrilled to announce that a handful of our authors are part of the NOOSA ALIVE celebrations next week, including our acclaimed crime novelist, Dorothy Johnson. You can find details about Dorothy's event here.

Inspired by real Queenscliff folklore, The Swan Island Connection sees Chris and Anthea consigned to the edges of a shocking murder investigation that somehow involves the secret military training base stationed on the island just off the coast of their peaceful town.

Here, author Dorothy Johnston shares some anecdotes of living in Queenscliff, where local residents must share their town with shadowy military agents.

Though the existence of a secret training base on Swan Island was denied for years by successive federal governments, Brian Toohey and Bill Pinwell, in their book, ‘Oyster: The Story of the Australian Secret Intelligence Service’ offers some tantalising details.

“(On Swan Island) the eager young army officers and NCOs learnt the dark arts of demolition, disguise, deception, sabotage, secret communication, and assassination… In one exercise on Swan Island the incorrect line of fire was set on a Chinese medium machine gun so that tracer bullets shot over the sandhills into the rigging of fishing boats in Port Phillip Bay. Fortunately for ASIS the only complaint made to the media was about the noise…”

There’s a special kind of snail that lives in the seagrass of Swan Bay. Because the bay is so shallow, it’s an important fish nursery and the baby fish eat the snails. Marine scientists didn’t know why the snail numbers were decreasing. They did a study and found that the lead in the bullets has been turning all the snails into males. I don’t know the end result of this, but I’d hope that those organizing target practice would find other, safer ways than firing into the water.

Local legends date from the time when regular army personnel were allowed to have their families living with them on the island. One woman recalls a birthday when she was a small girl, how she and her friends had gone for a walk in their party dresses and came upon a soldier in full combat gear lying in the marram grass. Another incident involved a night-time exercise, with trainees climbed across roofs and one inadvertently jumping down onto the family dog.

Part of the island is occupied by a golf club and my favourite story is about my mother and a group of critically endangered orange-bellied parrots.

Each Winter, the parrots used to fly across to Swan Island from Tasmania. My mother, a keen environmentalist and bird-lover used to observe and record them. Sadly, there haven’t been any for the past few years. My mother was given permission to enter the golf club part of the island for this. One day, engrossed in her task, she didn’t realise that the birds had ventured into the forbidden zone. Following them, she was shocked by a loud voice bellowing ‘Stop!’ and three soldiers in combat gear running through the bushes. Mum was a small woman, though by no means a cowardly one. She stood still, clutching her clipboard to her chest, and explained politely that she was tracking the parrots who couldn’t read the Keep Out signs.

Crime with a sense of place - by Jennifer McDonald

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.

2017-10-07 12.25.35Use 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.

20180319 - death-of-a-gossip 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!

Anecdotes on 'The Swan Island Connection'

For Pity Sake is thrilled to bring a new Dorothy Johnston mystery to readers. In 2016, Through A Camel’s Eye delighted readers as it told the story of police officers Chris Blackie and Anthea Merritt investigating a murder in the small town of Queenscliff. You can buy Through a Camel’s Eye here.

You can now pre-order the next in Dorothy’s sea-change mystery series – The Swan Island Connection – once again featuring local constable Chris Blackie and his deputy, Anthea Merritt. Inspired by real Queenscliff folklore, The Swan Island Connection sees Chris and Anthea consigned to the edges of a shocking murder investigation that somehow involves the secret military training base stationed on the island just off the coast of their peaceful town.

Here, author Dorothy Johnston shares some anecdotes of living in Queenscliff, where local residents must share their town with shadowy military agents.

Though the existence of a secret training base on Swan Island was denied for years by successive federal governments, Brian Toohey and Bill Pinwell, in their book, ‘Oyster: The Story of the Australian Secret Intelligence Service’ offers some tantalising details.

“(On Swan Island) the eager young army officers and NCOs learnt the dark arts of demolition, disguise, deception, sabotage, secret communication, and assassination… In one exercise on Swan Island the incorrect line of fire was set on a Chinese medium machine gun so that tracer bullets shot over the sandhills into the rigging of fishing boats in Port Phillip Bay. Fortunately for ASIS the only complaint made to the media was about the noise…”

There’s a special kind of snail that lives in the seagrass of Swan Bay. Because the bay is so shallow, it’s an important fish nursery and the baby fish eat the snails. Marine scientists didn’t know why the snail numbers were decreasing. They did a study and found that the lead in the bullets has been turning all the snails into males. I don’t know the end result of this, but I’d hope that those organizing target practice would find other, safer ways than firing into the water.

Local legends date from the time when regular army personnel were allowed to have their families living with them on the island. One woman recalls a birthday when she was a small girl, how she and her friends had gone for a walk in their party dresses and came upon a soldier in full combat gear lying in the marram grass. Another incident involved a night-time exercise, with trainees climbed across roofs and one inadvertently jumping down onto the family dog.

Part of the island is occupied by a golf club and my favourite story is about my mother and a group of critically endangered orange-bellied parrots.

Each Winter, the parrots used to fly across to Swan Island from Tasmania. My mother, a keen environmentalist and bird-lover used to observe and record them. Sadly, there haven’t been any for the past few years. My mother was given permission to enter the golf club part of the island for this. One day, engrossed in her task, she didn’t realise that the birds had ventured into the forbidden zone. Following them, she was shocked by a loud voice bellowing ‘Stop!’ and three soldiers in combat gear running through the bushes. Mum was a small woman, though by no means a cowardly one. She stood still, clutching her clipboard to her chest, and explained politely that she was tracking the parrots who couldn’t read the Keep Out signs.

Conjuring Compelling Atmosphere in Crime Fiction

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. 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.

The Gentle Pleasures of Writing Crime

It’s been just a few weeks since the launch of Dorothy Johnston’s new novel Through A Camel’s Eye was launched, and it’s already made big splashes with readers across the country. Recently Dorothy sat down with Barbie Robinson from Artcetera on FM 92.7 Canberra to talk about how she wrote the book, the importance of place in crime fiction, and future plans for the series. You can play the interview below. [audio mp3="http://forpitysake.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/DJ-interview-with-Barbie-Robinson-Artsound.mp3"][/audio]

 

You can also check out Dorothy’s full story about camel theft here, read our in-house review of Through A Camel’s Eye here, or purchase it here.