Queenscliff

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 Port Lonsdale Camel Theft

Writing Through a Camel’s Eye is inextricably linked, for me, with the experience of coming home. I was born in Geelong, Victoria and my parents built their house at Point Lonsdale, at the tip of the Bellarine Peninsula. When I was in my teens I left home to go to university in Melbourne, and in the late nineteen seventies I moved to Canberra, where I was to remain for the next thirty years.

Through all my years away, Point Lonsdale, small sister town to Queenscliff – the two are practically joined at the hip - became the place of my heart, the place I retreated to in my imagination when the real world got too much.

When I returned to help care for my mother in her last years, I felt first of all the joy of home-coming, each day a revelation, then a flood – once unleashed there was no stopping it – of youthful memories.

Out of this rush of memory and imagination the first of my sea-change mysteries was born.

One memory was of a story I first heard in the 1960s, about a group of young men from the Point Lonsdale Surf Life Saving Club, who stole a camel from a circus camped at the bottom of the club house stairs. This story, part of Point Lonsdale folklore, gave me the beginning of Through a Camel’s Eye. Chris Blackie and Anthea Merritt, the two police constables who are my protagonists, are drawn into searching for a missing woman almost by accident, having been presented with the task of finding a stolen camel and restoring him to his rightful owner.

I’d already written four mystery novels when I embarked on my new one; a quartet set in Canberra, one for each of the four seasons. I knew this book was going to be very different, but there was still some research to be done.

I’d driven past the police station in Gellibrand Street, Queenscliff, countless times, but still felt nervous when I knocked on the door with my notebook in my hand.

I’m comfortable about taking a fair amount of ‘poetic licence’ when creating characters, but I still needed to know what Queenscliff constables were likely to do in certain circumstances, how far their responsibility extended, or could be stretched, and some basic facts.

The police officer I spoke to the day I nervously knocked on the door was very helpful. If he treated some of my questions with wry amusement, then he showed no more than a hint of this, and politely set me on the right track. I was able to thank him for his help again, very recently. Imagine my surprise when I found him running a vegan restaurant in Geelong’s CBD!

Through a Camel’s Eye is what I would call a character-driven mystery; I spend a fair amount of time exploring my main characters’ personalities and psyches, and I make no apology for that. It is also about a domestic murder – grave, endemic in our society, often over-looked. I hope readers will appreciate both the gravity and the novel’s light side. I’m thrilled that it’s being published, and would like to thank everyone who’s been so supportive – my family and friends and the wonderful team at ‘For Pity Sake’.

Buy your copy of Through a Camel's Eye here!

 

Dorothy will be appearing at The Book Bird in Geelong West on the 6th of May. Booking is essential, RSVP to info@thebookbird.com.au or by calling (03) 5224 1438 to reserve your spot!