Spies often come in for a bad press, in real life and in fiction, for their bungling and their treachery. More often than not, it’s the mistakes and betrayals that come to the attention of the general reading public. An Elephant on your Nose presents a different view.
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!
‘Dear Santa, all I want for Christmas is a few days of peace and quiet and a pile of books….’ If you’re looking for the perfect gift, or a tender ‘treat yourself’ package for a few days of self-care, this list is designed as a Literate Lazy Susan for your biblio palette - or someone else’s.
For A Gorgeous Fictional Read - Richard Flanagan’s ‘First Person’ This is Tasmanian favourite Richard Flanagan’s return to fiction after his Mann Booker Prize Winner ‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North’ in 2014. If you’ve never been treated to Flanagan’s prose you’re missing out on a delight, and he certainly doesn’t disappoint in First Person: compelling, comic and chilling.
A young writer is tasked with ghost writing the memoir of a con man, but the relationship between the two men morphs in surprising ways. It’s has the heft of a finely tuned literary work, while also being a stay-up-past-me-bed-time page-turner. It’s all the more thrilling for the allusions to Flanagan’s real-life early literary career.
For An Audio Experience Like No Other - George Saunder’s ‘Lincoln In The Bardo’ The Mann Booker Prize for this year went to George Saunders’ Lincoln In The Bardo. A deserving win from a beautiful writer, Lincoln In The Bardo focuses on the sudden death of Abraham Lincoln’s young son, whose ghost is desperate to find a way home. It’s a funny, devastating and beautiful story, told from multiple points of view. At times, the book reads like a screenplay, as multiple character voices fight for themselves to be heard (or read).
This makes the audiobook a thoroughly enjoyable adventure, and may even be my preferred method of digesting this work. The all-star cast features Nick Offerman, David Sedaris, Megan Mullally, George Saunders himself, Lena Dunham, Miranda July and Carrie Brownstein. If you’re not a regular audiobook listener, this is the perfect title to get you hooked. (And it will prep you for all of the For Pity Sake titles that are about to be released.)
For A Self-Help Lover - Mark Manson’s ‘The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck’
I’m hesitant to suggest a self-help book at Christmas time. It can be a perfect opportunity to pause, reflect and do some self-work, but it can also come across as a slightly insulting Christmas gift. (Hands up if you got The Magic Art of Tidying Up in your stocking last year. What were they trying to tell you, hmmm?) Worse, some self-help books come with enough homework and ‘programs’ that you end up in a navel-gazing existential crisis that’s only worsened by having to hang with your blood relatives during the festive season.
The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck is a refreshing change. Direct, readable, and filled with common sense, this book will remind you of the things really worth worrying about, making that awkward Christmas lunch a breeze. It’s also a great way to start a new year, and will make your resolutions more achievable and focused.
For the History Nut - Sara Dowse’s ‘As The Lonely Fly’
Yes, okay, admitted bias here. As The Lonely Fly is a For Pity Sake published title. But Sara Dowse’s new master work is something to behold. One reviewer described it as ‘writing of international importance’.
The book starts and ends in 1967 just after the Six Day War. This is significant because 2017 is the 50th anniversary of that war and the centennial of the Balfour Declaration in which Britain promised a national home to the Jewish people in Palestine. The complex political background to the formation of Israel is instantly humanised by Dowse’s deft approach to the characterisation of three remarkable Russian Jewish women – a fearless revolutionary, an American immgrant and a devoted Zionist. It will keep you turning the pages.
For the Crime Lover - Dorothy Johnston’s ‘The Swan Island Connection’ Another For Pity Sake’s author, Dorothy Johnston, released the second in her ‘sea-change mystery’ series in 2017. The Swan Island Connection expands on the tales of Senior Constable Chris Blackie and his deputy, Constable Anthea Merritt, in her darkly charming crime novels set in the idyllic Victorian coast town of Queenscliff.
Local residents are disturbed by a shocking murder, but this is far from an open and shut case. Chris and Anthea uncover a long trail of deception linked to nearby Swan Island which houses a secret military training base. This is an intriguing novel with an artfully rendered sense of place, that will keep you guessing. Although it’s the second in the series, The Swan Island Connection is easily read as a stand-alone, or in partnership with its predecessor Through a Camel’s Eye. Both would make the perfect gift for the crime fiction fan.
For A Fun Space Trip - Amie Kauffman and Jay Kristoff’s ‘Illuminae’ Series
Okay, the two books in this series weren’t released this year, but the third, concluding part is to be released in 2018, and I can’t wait. This is, strictly speaking, a young adult series, but the genius behind this blockbuster means it has reach across all ages.
The space wars story that would be at home in a blockbuster film is told through e-mails, computer logs and other documents. The internal graphic design of these books is worth the price of admission alone, and elevate the work to a beautiful experience as much as a compelling one. Buy it for the non-reading teenager in your life, and grab a copy for yourself. You won’t be sorry.
Dorothy Johnston reviews Peter Yeldham's latest work "The Last Double Sunrise", which is available now. Carlo Minelli must surely be the most engaging – and lucky – prisoner of war in Australian literature.
Minelli is dubbed the POW Artist when he enters a painting in the Francis Greenway award from a prisoner-of-war camp in Cowra, New South Wales. The painting is disqualified, but earns Minelli a fair amount of publicity, much of it sympathetic. He has come to Cowra by a circuitous and dangerous route, having arrived in Rome to take up an artistic scholarship at the Villa Medici on the very day Il Duce declares war. The Villa, run by the French government, is locked and twenty-one-year old Minelli is turned away. Rome is in uproar and it isn’t long before the young man is press-ganged into the army.
The dramatic events of the second world war are much more than a back drop to this skilfully told story. Yeldham is a master at weaving together the personal life of his protagonist with real historical events, such as the Allied attack on Sidi Barrani where Minelli is taken prisoner and, much later in the story, the Japanese prisoners’ breakout at Cowra. Minelli is utterly believable, both as an artist and a reluctant soldier. This is partly because readers first meet him as a child, already displaying his artistic talent, which is encouraged by his mother, herself an art teacher, and scorned by his father, who is determined young Carlo will take over the running of the family vineyard.
Minelli’s character is formed in adversity. Instead of this making him openly angry and rebellious, it teaches him patience. Determined not to give up on his art, he has the kind of open, honest personality that other people, including some of his guards and jailors, warm to, and that makes them want to help him.
Allied officers aboard an overcrowded troop ship carrying prisoners to Australia rescue Minelli from a savage beating, and make a refuge for him in their wireless room. An Australian army officer’s wife suggests he should start a studio in the camp at Cowra, helping the theatrical group by painting sets, teaching, and working on his own paintings at the same time. The suggestion is enthusiastically taken up, and almost immediately becomes a success.
After a few false starts, Minelli is also lucky in love, finding a young Australian woman who is a match for him in every way.
As a protagonist, his trials and dangers, his hopes and feelings and ambitions are a joy to read about. The story of Italian prisoners of war, first in England, then Australia, is fascinating in itself, and told with verve and compassion. The Last Double Sunrise confirms Peter Yeldham’s reputation as an outstanding writer of historical fiction.
Celebrated crime writer Dorothy Johnston, author of works such as The Swan Island Connection and Through a Camel's Eye continues her short story 'Crossing The Rip'. Missed the first part? Catch it here! And have you got your entry in for our short story competition yet?
The light was dull, the bay flat and grey, but there was a gap on the horizon, a hole between the clouds, with yellow and pink shining out of it. It seemed to Elspeth, waiting for the ferry, that if she stared long enough at the horizon she might pass right through the hole and out the other side. The girl taking tickets let her on even though she only had three dollars, and this unexpected kindness gave her heart.
Elspeth thought of what she’d learnt in the museum, hugging the knowledge to her sides as though it were her own secret, not just information that had been sitting there waiting for anyone to find. She looked up at the sky again, noting that the tear had widened. Now it seemed as though Simon Bantree might be waiting on the other side. Elspeth wondered if he’d looked up and seen his murderer before he died, and for the first time she felt sorry for him. She also felt so hungry that she began to wonder what the ferry did with its garbage and thought about walking around the cafeteria to see if any food had been left on plates.
A pilot boat passed them, moving swiftly, an orange arrow in the dusk. Elspeth was surprised to realise that she’d been gone all day. She could no longer make out where the water ended and the land began, and thought again of her ancestor crossing in his row boat, in the days when there had been no ferries, no container ships or pilots to guide them. The pilot approached a big ship, orange too, exactly the same colour. The small boat drew right alongside and they stayed like that, fixed like a mother and her baby for such a long time that Elspeth began to believe they would never separate. It disturbed her, like those bridesmaids and their escorts, with their hands flung out in a rhythm.
While they were docking, Elspeth remembered seeing the rug with the blue and purple pattern a second time, in the back of a mini van. There’d been quite a lot of cars in the parking area behind the pier, so that meant it was probably a Saturday or Sunday, but she could not remember which. The mini van had been white, but then they nearly always were.
By the time she left the ferry, it was already practically dark. In fact, it would have seemed dark to a person walking outside from a lighted room. But Elspeth had her night eyes, having stood in mist and drizzle on the upper deck. She walked all the way from the terminal to the parking lot behind the pier, no longer feeling tired or hungry, but filled with a strange inward light. Her hands glowed like those phosphorescent toys that seemed to belong to an age and kind of person she had never been. She recalled feeling envious of a girl who’d brought one to school, and the recollection brought nothing but contempt.
A white mini van was parked under the lighthouse, away from street lights, up against the tea-tree. A man was opening the door. Elspeth stood in the shadows watching.
There was something about the man that she felt she ought to recognise. His shadow was square-shaped. Could it be Mr Mahood? Mr Mahood was short, with broad shoulders and wide hips for a man. But Mr Mahood drove a big Toyota Landcruiser that Billy said was worth sixty thousand dollars. His wife drove a new white Hyundai and as soon as his kids were old enough, Elspeth knew they’d all have cars of their own.
Elspeth drew nearer to the van. She’d thought that she’d been moving silently, but now that she was quite close, the man suddenly straightened up from where he’d been arranging something in the back, and looked her in the face.
It was a stranger, somebody Elspeth had never seen before. His expression was blank underneath a beanie pulled close around his head.
‘Hello,’ he said. ‘Where are you off to?’
‘Nowhere,’ Elspeth said.
The man’s voice was mild, like water flowing from a tap that was neither hot nor cold.
Elspeth thought of the tea-tree all around them, the dark caverns and tunnels. The man was young and not very big.
‘What have you got in your van?’ she asked him, taking a step sideways.
‘Just my fishing gear.’
Elspeth felt soothed by the man’s voice, and very tired. She almost asked if he had anything to eat.
‘Did you catch anything?’ she asked, taking another step.
The man laughed and said in a soft voice, ‘Not yet.’
He took two quick steps towards her. Elspeth dived under the bushes.
She knew the place, having built cubbies there since she was five years old. She knew the steep drop down, where the tea-tree made a roof and where she could run bent double.
Torchlight parted and destroyed the cover of leaves and branches over Elspeth’s head. Down near the ground the undergrowth was thick and the man’s torch scarcely penetrated. Elspeth’s hands glowed. She scurried like a rat.
Dread made her arms and legs so heavy that, after the first rush, she felt that she could scarcely lift them. She knew she should have run back along the road to the nearest house. Her secret way was slow, and even if she yelled her lungs out nobody would hear her. Elspeth sobbed with fear and anger, for having gone anywhere near the van, for choosing the wrong way.
For what seemed like a long time after that, she thought of nothing but running and falling. A branch tore at her mouth and she swallowed blood. But then she was out and there was only the street to cross, and she was she was on the other side and climbing the dark porch of her own house, beating on the door and yelling.
Elspeth ate a bowl of cornflakes, but went on feeling hungry, not only in her stomach, but in every other part as well. She noticed that the policeman had strange-coloured eyes, and that his cheeks hung down as though he expected everyone to disappoint him.
The policeman made phone calls, then asked Elspeth to go back to the beginning and tell him everything again. When she described the tea-tree tunnel, he looked annoyed and frowned.
Elspeth’s mother stood with crossed arms in the doorway and a face full of spite. The twins half hid behind her in their matching dressing gowns. Only Billy was fully in the room with her. Billy kept his face blank, but when the policeman asked Elspeth something for the third time, he got up and fetched her a glass of water.
‘Why didn’t you tell us about the body straight away?’
‘I was scared.’
Elspeth couldn’t say, everybody knew I hated Simon. She made herself not look at Billy.
‘I’m sorry,’ she said.
The phone rang in the hallway. When their mother came back from answering it, there were red lines along her cheekbones and her eyes looked as though they’d been polished.
The policeman closed his notebook, frowned again and said, ‘That’ll be all for now, young Miss.’
For the rest of that night, Elspeth felt detached from what was going on, from whether the policeman had believed her, and the fact that her mother shut herself in her room and did not come again.
There was a soft knock on her door; Elspeth knew that it was Billy. She rolled over in her narrow bed and squeezed her eyes shut.
In the silence of the house after Billy gave up and went away, between the wood and plaster of its walls, Elspeth returned to her holes and tunnels in the tea-tree, crouching there, cold and hungry and afraid to move. She tried to summon Harry Tregear as a comfort, and went over her discoveries in the museum. Harry had been sentenced and convicted for stealing a rabbit, though he was only nine.
Elspeth felt exhausted, yet afraid to sleep.
The fear didn’t leave her after she got up next morning and went off to school. The past could not be relied on, and she didn’t see how she could prevent herself from repeating her mistakes.
Over the next few days, Elspeth saw quite a lot of the police. She stepped warily around her mother, and was careful not to say anything to set her off.
For a short while, at school, she found herself a heroine, especially among kids like herself, who’d been bullied by Simon. They knew about child molesters. They’d had it all drummed into them. But Simon had seemed indestructible.
They were sober, the children, Elspeth and Billy too, when they heard the driver of the mini van had been arrested. Their small sisters, though conversant with Simon’s cruelty, as well as the dangers of talking to strangers, were content to leave it there, that a menace had been lifted. This relief that the tyrant was dead - none of them dared speak about it to grown-ups - kept the children close, and closely gathered around Elspeth, who was touched by the magic of deliverance. She had run away and then come back. She had had the presence of mind to recall the colours of a rug.
Though Elspeth did not turn away from the attentions of the other children, she did not encourage them.
Billy cornered her in the backyard one afternoon, knowing, with the instinct he had for an advantage, that Elspeth was scared to hide under the fig tree. She was crouched down in the open by the fence.
Billy squatted beside his sister, near enough to touch.
‘What did he look like?’
Elspeth moved away and scratched in the dirt with a stick.
She said without turning round, ‘Did you ever want to kill him?’
Elspeth thought again about how Simon had left Billy alone. ‘What’s Mum doing?’ she asked.
Billy was relaxed. Her questions hadn’t bothered him. Brother and sister sat in a silence which gradually lost its threat.
Finally, Billy said, ‘I wouldn’t have done it.’
‘Picked up the rug and looked.’
Elspeth wanted to ask her brother how he knew what he would, or would not have done. But she understood, even as she began to form the question, that Billy would not have been the least bit bothered by the wedding party; he would not have needed to go and sit by himself near the gun emplacement. The whole chain of events which followed would never have happened to him.
It seemed pointless to say any of this. Elspeth thought of things growing in dark places where she couldn’t see, but where torchlight might pick out her form. She thought of roots grown huge in torchlight, whose sole purpose was to trip her up. It made her sick to think how she’d once played in the bunker, running up and down the filthy steps, how she’d been deaf to the twins calling out to her to come back. She heard their shrieks behind her, then ahead, then knew the shrieks were real, and coming from the house.
Elspeth sighed and wondered for the millionth time why it fell to her to break up her sisters’ fights, when Billy was much better at it.
He confounded her by jumping to his feet in one smooth movement, saying, ‘I’ll go.’
Elspeth looked at her brother with surprise, then sat back and crossed her legs.
After a while, Billy came back to the fence. He didn’t say what he’d done to shut the twins up, and Elspeth didn’t ask. They watched the kitchen light come on behind closed curtains.
‘Dad’s not coming back,’ Elspeth said.
‘How do you know?’
‘I just do.’
Billy was looking at her oddly, not in a Billy way at all. Elspeth realised that this was because he couldn’t dismiss her opinions as easily as he had before.
When he repeated his question, Elspeth said, ‘Mum knows.’
She waited for the words to sink into her own brain as well as Billy’s, who’d never had to think about what it meant to be replaced. And indeed, he might not be. If her father kept in touch with any of them, it would be his son.
‘Why doesn’t she tell us?’
‘She’s scared to.’
‘I’ll find out where Dad is,’ Billy said. ‘I’ll go and bring him home.’
Elspeth would have liked to say, ‘I’ll come too’, but she didn’t. She thought that Billy would have to make his own mistakes.
The two children stood up. Elspeth went to their mother, while Billy waited for a moment then followed her indoors.
We're in the midst of celebrating the art of the short story with our For Pity Sake Short Story Competition (have you got your entry in yet?). Here, celebrated crime writer Dorothy Johnston shares a never-before-seen short story, 'Crossing The Rip'. Dorothy has just released 'The Swan Island Connection', the second in her Queenscliff mystery series. The Australian Crime Fiction blog recently said: "There's an excellent balance here between character, setting and plot" and gave a fantastic summary of the book.
Here's part one of 'Crossing The Rip'.
To Elspeth’s family belonged the distinction of having been the first to bring a dairy cow across the Rip. Her great-great-great grandfather had ferried the cow, whose name was Mrs Collins, in a small boat, together with sacks of flour and rice, her great-great-great grandmother and their four children. The boat had nearly capsized, drowning them all, but it was the cow he was remembered for. Mrs Collins had given birth to twin calves shortly after their arrival and had become a matriarch, outliving many of the human immigrants.
Elspeth had been told more times than she cared to remember that Mrs Collins had been named after the first governor’s wife, the governor who had landed at Sullivan Bay with three hundred convicts, of whom her grandfather with all those greats in front of his name had been the youngest, at nine years old, which happened to be her age right now. He had grown up and been pardoned and had been enterprising enough to realise that the new settlement at Shortland’s Bluff would need fresh milk and had decided that he was the man to provide it.
Within the family, the story was believed to give them a prestige it would have otherwise lacked, and the children of each generation had been schooled in its details. Elspeth was aware of a further unwelcome distinction, and that was her own name. She had tried, during her first three years at school, to comfort herself with the thought that she was different, to believe that her difference provided some sort of balance against the teasing meted out by girls with names like Jenny and Susan, and boys called Jim or Simon. That great-great-great grandmother had been called Elspeth too – no doubt it had been a more common name in her day. Her mother had taken a more sensible approach with her younger siblings. Her brother, christened William, was known as Billy. Her twin sisters were Margaret and Ann.
Her father had always called his eldest daughter Ellie. But her father was away from home. Her mother, through pre-occupation or a preference for her son had, after saddling her with a dreadful name, ceased to pay her much attention. Elspeth knew there would be no help from that quarter. Even to hint at what she’d done might bring so much trouble down on her head that it would be second only to being sought out by a murderer. Indeed, the one might lead to the other.
Elspeth had often been warned that the gun emplacement wasn’t safe, and already she’d been scolded for getting home after dark.
It was the wedding that had thrown her. But for the wedding, Elspeth would have climbed the steps by the lighthouse and continued on home. She wouldn’t have gone anywhere near the gun emplacement. The sun had been setting and she’d been walking towards the lighthouse looking for cuttlefish, having a bet going with Billy as to who could find the biggest.
She’d looked up and seen a group by the rocks. In light already dimming, they’d appeared from a distance as no more than black shapes. A flash had told her that photographs were being taken, which meant a wedding, though anyone who’d climb down all that way in her wedding dress in order to be photographed had to be nuts.
By the time Elspeth remembered the cuttlefish, she was almost up to the group, now separated into bride and bridegroom, three bridesmaids and their partners, photographer and his assistant. Suddenly all the women jumped into the men’s arms and stayed posed like that, right arms held out and bunches of flowers at the ends of them. The jumping and the staying upset Elspeth in a way she didn’t understand.
The sand had been all churned up with the footprints of people and dogs. In less than an hour, Elspeth knew, the rising tide would wash them away, and the place where the wedding party pranced and laughed would be swept by currents so swift and unpredictable that no one in their right minds would venture near them.
Elspeth looked down and saw deep marks in the sand, as though made by a huge dog such as a Great Dane, or a giant cow.
Feeling restless and upset, she walked along the cliff path as far as the gun emplacement, where she saw a bundle of something wrapped in a rug. Without stopping to think, she walked over and lifted up a corner.
Before she fell asleep at last, Elspeth spent a few moments wondering what it might have been like to be part of that far-off family who’d crossed the Rip, and what that other Elspeth would have done.
Normally, Elspeth liked a foggy morning. She liked rushing ahead of her sisters on the way to school, hearing their shrieks of half-put-on, half-real fear disappear behind her, their voices growing weird and distorted once she could no longer see them. Billy would never admit to being scared of fog, though there’d been a time, not so long ago, when he’d cried and shrieked for her to wait for him as well.
Elspeth felt more or less herself until she’d left the twins behind, and was on the path that followed the line of sandhills. She did not have to pass behind the gun emplacement or the lighthouse. She could turn off before she reached them - that was the most direct route to school – but on foggy mornings she sometimes took the longer way around, in order to come close to the lighthouse and be deafened by the fog horn.
Now, even if she’d wanted to, she could not have heard her sister’s cries. She timed the gaps between each blast of the horn – one thousand, two thousand – and it seemed as though they were growing shorter. Elspeth kept walking, pleased that nobody knew exactly where she was. If she did not show up at school, Meg and Ann would say, ‘Yes Miss Primrose, she went on ahead of us.’
Primrose was a stupid name for a teacher, and Elspeth hated the way her sisters sucked up to her. She turned right and took the steep track that led towards the lighthouse. As a vague idea of wagging school turned into a resolution, she understood that what she wanted most of all was time to think.
Elspeth shivered, spooking herself for a moment by the thought that the body might still be there. But of course it wasn’t. Her mother had put on the news while they were eating their breakfast. The police had found it; they would have taken it away.
Close to the lighthouse there were tunnels underneath the tea-tree, secret places covered in vines where Elspeth had dragged Ann and Margaret on long Sunday afternoons when she’d been deputed to look after them. Billy had been allowed to stay home and help their father, on weekend projects such as carpentry and painting. Elspeth had felt left out until she’d understood that there was something absolute in the division, and that her father loved her in spite of it. He often stood up for her in her fights with her mother. She wished he would come home.
Elspeth was free for a whole day if she chose. Could she claim that she’d stumbled against a tree and been knocked unconscious, only coming to as the bell rang? She crouched down in the darkness. In the tea-tree tunnel, with the fog all round, it was almost as dark as night. At first, she hadn’t recognised Simon Bantree, hadn’t even realised that the shape inside the rug was human. Then – oh, stupidity of all stupidities – the squashed-in head had been right there in front of her, and it belonged to Simon, her worst enemy.
Could the police find out if she had touched the rug? Would her fingerprints be on it?
It was cold underneath the tea-tree. The fog made Elspeth’s hands and face feel clammy, and bits of dirt and twigs stuck to her clothes. She felt cramped and cold and hungry. She hadn’t wanted to sit at the kitchen table eating breakfast. Her mother had shrugged and said, ‘Suit yourself.’ Perhaps this wasn’t such a good place to spend the day after all. Elspeth reasoned that, if she was going to leave, it would be better to do so now, while it was still early.
She crawled out and made her way towards the gun emplacement. To the right, there was nothing but white vapour, though the surf was loud in the gaps between the fog horn blasts. Unless someone saw her going in, it was doubtful they would think to look for her inside the concrete bunker, though it was a place she often visited. On clear days, she liked to look out across the Rip, through the slits where guns had pointed. The concrete was crumbling and falling in on itself, stained almost black in places, with bits of metal poking through. Elspeth liked the way the slits framed the beach and ocean.
She lifted her head at the sound of voices. As the fog began to lift, she saw a line of policemen walking slowly along the clifftop. Elspeth shrank back inside the bunker and crouched down, trying to think of Simon as a person, a boy her own age. She tried to reflect on the fact that he would never grow up, and to count, in her mind, all the kids who might have wanted Simon dead, and one who had actually killed him.
Elspeth remembered that she’d seen the rug before. She’d pushed the memory right down to her toes, but now it came back. It occurred to her that the teacher might not think of her absence as wagging. They might send out a search party. The idea came to her that she would catch the ferry to Sorrento. She wasn’t running away, and had no plan to stay out overnight. But she needed more time, and if the teacher rang the police and the police came looking for her, then she’d have to face their questions.
Elspeth decided to make her way by stages to the landing bay, keeping to the trees and bushes and avoiding the police. She would have scorned anyone who believed in ghosts, but if Simon’s was anywhere, Elspeth was sure that it was in front of her, where those bridesmaids had jumped with posies on the ends of their arms.
Elspeth made her way along the left-hand side of the road. When a police van passed her, she kept her eyes down. It was then that she remembered seeing the rug in a pile of things on the pier - it must have been the Sunday before last.
She’d been taking some bait out to Mr Mahood and he’d paid her two dollars for it. Mr Mahood only ever came down to fish on Sundays. He and his family had bought a big two storey brick place at the Springs.
She had not seen who the rug belonged to. It was a purple and blue rug, very nice. Elspeth told herself that she would not think of lifting up the corner. Before leaving home, she’d taken the money she’d saved from a box under her bed, and felt the two five dollar notes warming her pocket as she walked.
There were no other foot passengers waiting to board the ferry and only five cars lined up. Elspeth felt conspicuous, especially since the fare was more than she’d expected, seven dollars one way, which meant she wasn’t able to purchase a return. She hesitated and the ticket seller gave her a mean look.
Instead of sitting in the lounge, Elspeth stood at the top of the steep metal staircase leading to the cars, which crossed the Rip in a kind of cargo hold, though a huge and open one. That morning, with the fog still thick over the bay, the cars were invisible except for their outlines and glinting metal here and there. Nobody took any notice of Elspeth, and for some reason, though she shivered with cold, she felt safe. She was alone and on the water. She was going somewhere.
Elspeth remembered how Simon Bantree used to wait for her after school, how he called out from behind the pine trees, ‘Hey Spit! El-spit!’ and how she walked on without turning round, and how the stones followed, while, in the background, other kids, safe from his attentions for the time being, laughed. She remembered the fury she always felt, and how she wished that he would just get sick of it, and how often her mother was annoyed with her for coming home scratched and dirty. Billy had been one of the few boys Simon left alone. How had he managed it?
Elspeth was the first passenger off the boat, jumping down the stairs and then the ramp. She ran along the pier. She wouldn’t think about the three dollars in her pocket, or else she might be tempted to spend it on a bag of chips. The fog was thinning and shredding over the headland as she began the steep climb towards the shops.
The noise of a car engine made her turn her head. In a strong, sudden ray of light, she recognised the driver. It was one of the bridesmaids from the wedding.
Elspeth recognised the bridesmaid’s hair - ‘big hair’ it was called. She had a big build too. She remembered feeling sorry for the man who’d had to hold the bridesmaid up, and how stiff her arm had looked with the flowers like an extra hand.
Elspeth sat on a bench in the Pioneer Gardens, but instead of relaxing, her thoughts returned to home. She wondered what her mother would say when the teacher rang to find out why she wasn’t at school. She worried about her father, who’d been gone too long.
Elspeth stood up and began to walk around the gardens, then read the sign outside the historical museum at one end of it. Free entry it said. She climbed the steps and wandered around looking at old-fashioned clothes in glass cases, and bits of glass and metal that had been washed up from shipwrecks. It was all dusty and boring. In another room was a display of the first settlement at Sullivan Bay.
There was Mr Collins in his soldier’s uniform, a life-sized statue. He had a funny blank face and a red coat. The real Mrs Collins, the one their cow was named after, had stayed behind in England and Mr Collins, Elspeth went on reading with more interest, had taken a second wife from among the convicts. A huge oak barrel was on display. The convicts had sunk it in the sand in order to get drinking water.
Elspeth found a book that listed all the convicts by name, and settled down to go through it, looking for Harry Tregear, the youngest of all, who’d grown up to be her great-great-great grandfather. She wondered what his crime had been and kept looking till she found it.
She stayed in the museum till a woman came to tell her they were closing. She felt terribly thirsty and drank deeply from a fountain in the gardens.
To be continued...
October release of ‘The Swan Island Connection’
The second in Dorothy Johnston’s sea-change mystery series
Release Date – 7th October, 2017: Award-winning Australian author, Dorothy Johnston, has announced the release of the second novel in her sea-change mystery series, The Swan Island Connection.
Set in Queenscliff on Victoria’s Bellarine Peninsula, The Swan Island Connection follows on from Through a Camel’s Eye, published in April 2016 by For Pity Sake Publishing.
Senior Constable, Chris Blackie and his deputy, Anthea Merritt, are confronted by a shocking murder that rocks the small coastal town. Criminal Investigation Unit detectives are brought in from Geelong, as Chris and Anthea become increasingly uneasy about the interest shown in the case by shadowy figures from the secret military training base on nearby Swan Island. Consigned to the edges of the investigation in their own town, the two local constables pursue individual lines of enquiry which proves a dangerous course of action.
Political commentator, Brian Toohey said this about The Swan Island Connection;
‘Dorothy Johnston has delivered an intriguing blend of social observation and crime fiction in her latest novel set in Queenscliff, Victoria. The story is spliced with a sharp sub plot involving the nearby training base for the Australian Secret Intelligence Service. Another strong contribution to the reputation of the nation’s novelists.’
The Swan Island Connection will be launched by Garry Spry, Hon. President of the Queenscliff Historical Museum, and the former State Member for Bellarine (1992-2002) at the Queenscliff Brewhouse on October 7th at 4pm. RSVP for this free event by the 4th of October: email@example.com.
Dorothy Johnston was born in Geelong and lived in Canberra for thirty years before returning to Victoria’s Bellarine Peninsula where The Swan Island Connection and its predecessor, Through a Camel’s Eye, are set.
Johnston is the author of eleven novels, including a quartet of mysteries set in Canberra, the first of which, The Trojan Dog, was joint winner ACT Book of the Year, and runner-up in the inaugural Davitt Award. The Age gave it their ‘Best of 2000’ in the crime section.
Two of Johnston’s literary novels, One for the Master and Ruth, have also been shortlisted for the Miles Franklin award.
Through a Camel’s Eye, was recently mentioned in the commendation list of the Sisters in Crime 2017 Davitt Awards.
Pre-orders of The Swan Island Connection are available from the For Pity Sake Shop.
A couple of weeks ago, Dorothy Johnston told us about her time living close to a secret military base. The experience inspired her newest novel, The Swan Island Connection, which is available for pre-sale now. Here at For Pity Sake, we can hardly wait to unleash the book on the world. If you’ve ordered the book but are hungry for more crime inspired by true events, we’ve got you covered. Here are three true crime television series you can down in a single gulp to get you ready for the release of The Swan Island Connection.
Making a Murderer - Netflix
If you’re one of the few people left alive who hasn’t seen this remarkable 2016 hit, then you’re in for a treat. This dramatic examination of a stunning double murder case and its prosecution is deeply addictive. Every episode comes with new twists and turns. The documentarians have unprecedented access to everyone - the lawyers, the family, the lead suspect, and more. What begins as a simple case with DNA evidence slowly unravels into a story of corruption, exploitation and a search for justice.
The Keepers - Netflix
Almost fifty years ago, a nun was murdered in an ordinary American town. The case is still unsolved. The Keepers is frustratingly less open-and-shut than Making a Murderer, but it means you won’t be able to resist the temptation to become an armchair detective. In fact, the most compelling part of this fantastic series is following the journey of the small group of women who have taken up the case, disturbed by the local police’s lack of action on the matter. They uncover a far-reaching group of abuse survivors who form a unique community. It’s the examination of these survivors as the case unfolds that will keep you glued.
The Jinx - HBO, available on Foxtel Now
Filmmaker Andrew Jarecki receives a phone call from Robert Durst: the exiled member of a New York millionaire family who is a suspected serial killer. Robert wants an interview. The series only gets weirder from there. The slick, gripping series pulls apart the evidence on multiple murder charges. At the time the series went to air Robert Durst was walking free. The series helped to put charges back on him, and he’s currently awaiting trial. It’s a disturbing portrayal of a dark corner of humanity.
Don’t delay, pre-order your copy of The Swan Island Connection now.
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.
Peter Yeldham's done a lot in his life. He's shared an office with Spike Milligan. (Yes, that Spike Milligan.) He's written for the BBC, the ABC, for television and radio. He's an award-winning and nationally celebrated Australian story-teller. Across the decades, he's turned to war and its horror as a source of inspiration for his many novels. But unlike so many war narratives of the current age, Peter's work never celebrates violence. In fact, most of the drama in Peter's books is away from the battlefield. It's the human action that dares you to read on. Scandalous romances, international intrigue, or the heart-breaking journey of refugees. It's this, well-researched, human face of his narratives that has made him one of the countries most enduring authors.
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