Dorothy Johnston, Through a camel’s eye (Review)
When should I give up saying that I don’t read crime? In the last seven years, I’ve posted nine reviews tagged crime fiction (of which one was a guest post). Perhaps just over one a year still qualifies as not reading crime? Then again, what’s the point of saying it, if every now and then I do read crime? I think there is a point – it advises that I’m not a crime fiction expert, so my posts need to be read from that point-of-view, and it also tells readers not to come here looking for posts on crime.
So now, with that off my chest, I’ll get to Dorothy Johnston’s crime novel, Through a camel’s eye. It’s the first novel in her new crime series, Sea-change mysteries. I decided to read it for two reasons. One is that I’ve read and posted on two other works by her and was interested to see how a Miles Franklin shortlisted author might approach crime fiction. The other is that she was going to be in town last weekend and we’d agreed to meet for a quick cuppa, so I thought this would be the time to read her latest book (though I didn’t finish it in time). I didn’t plan to quiz her about the book, but I did want to show some support for a hardworking author. As with most of the crime novels I’ve read while blogging, I wasn’t sorry about my decision to expand my horizons a little.
Before I write about the book, though, I do want to mention the cover. It features a soft-edged image of a camel, lighthouse, and boardwalk. It’s gentle, atmospheric and, woo-hoo, it doesn’t have an image of a tiny man or a woman’s back as has been popular in recent times. The murder victim is, however, a woman, which, given women do not comprise the majority of homicide victims, is another issue that crops up in commentaries. The point here, though, is that Johnston does not delight in gruesome detail. We gradually discover during the course of the novel how the murder took place but the details, the victim’s emotions, the appearance and/or treatment of the body are not focused on. This is because Johnston’s interest lies elsewhere.
And now, I should get to the story. It’s a police procedural set in a small coastal community in Victoria. The police station is run by a local, Constable Chris Blackie, who returned to the town when his mother was unwell and stayed on after she died. The novel starts, though, with Anthea, a young, recently graduated constable who has been sent to be Chris’ assistant. Her country-town placement has precipitated a break with her architect lover, and she’s pining. Actually, the novel doesn’t quite start with her, either – she’s just the first police officer we meet. The novel starts with one of the town’s “characters”, the recently mute Camilla Renfrew, watching a young woman, Julie, train a young camel. As Camilla walks away, she remembers that on a previous visit she’d heard a woman’s scream. And so there we have it, we think, the crime – and yes, one of the book’s two crimes is a murdered woman, but it’s not, in fact, the first crime we are confronted with. That honour goes to the aforementioned camel, Riza. He goes missing.
From these two crimes, Johnston spins an intriguing tale that keeps us wondering whether the crimes are connected or not – but you’ll have to read it yourself to answer that question. I want to talk instead about what I enjoyed most about the novel – characters and language.
… looking for drama
Most crime novels, I think, draw on archetypes. In this case, there’s the idea of a “sea-change” – particularly for Anthea – and the basic character set-up, the reserved, loner boss, and the fresh, unsettled, somewhat disengaged offsider. Anthea is “disappointed” to have been sent to Queenscliff, and thinks she has her boss pinned:
She would like to dismiss Chris Blackie as an old fuddy-duddy, or a closet-gay; but found she couldn’t, quite.
She’s attracted to “forceful men with definite ideas” but Chris is not that sort of man. He’s barely conscious of his “maleness”, and she doesn’t quite know how to respond to such a person. For his part, Chris would have been happy to run the station solo. Nonetheless, he’d been open to the idea of a woman, but
Anthea had come looking for drama. He’d seen it in her eyes the minute she walked in. Both the anticipation and the almost instantaneous disappointment …
He wasn’t to know of course that her first sight of him, bum-up tending the police station’s lavender and rose garden, hadn’t exactly inspired her.
So, we have an archetypal “misfit” situation – two people working together, neither of whom are completely comfortable in their skins. It is the development of these two characters and their relationship, rather than in solving the crime, that I enjoyed most in the novel. Anthea may have come “looking for drama” but Johnston develops her story quietly, tenderly, rather than dramatically. She achieves this by taking us into the heads of these two unsure people, showing us their thoughts, feelings and reactions.
Why are they unsure? Well, I’ve already described some of it, but there’s more – and this could be where those of you who don’t like coincidences may come a little unstuck, because there are several missing parents here. Anthea’s parents had died in an accident when she was three, while Chris’ father had drowned when he was ten. Camilla’s “cold, punitive” husband had died of a heart attack when her now adult son, Simon, was ten, something for which he seems to still blame her. And young Julie, the camel owner? Her parents had died in a car-crash when she was in her teens. Johnston doesn’t labour all this, but these losses provide background to the characters and help explain their lack of mooring. Coping with loss and resolving the past could also be seen as themes of the novel. Anthea, for example, needs to let go of her lover, while Chris needs to resolve the fears that are stunting him.
Besides these characters, there’s Johnston’s description of place and small town life. We meet the town’s denizens – farmers, teenagers, caravan park owners, retired solicitor. They are typical – they have to be for us to believe the town – but, overall, they work as individuals too. We see the pros and cons of small town living, the everyone-knows-everyone-else’s-business aspect alongside the looking-out-for-each-other part. Chris’ old cottage and Anthea’s flat, the paddocks and seascape, are all clearly, but succinctly, described, as are the characters. Here is a minor character:
His big frame relaxed as though someone pulled a peg that was holding complicated scaffolding in place.
And here is the physical environment, seen through the eyes of another minor character:
Camilla was fascinated by the thick white stalk of the lighthouse, appearing and disappearing through the fog. Behind her, the pier squatted as a vague horizontal line, a grey denser than the sky. Its verticals were lines of shadow legs, a giant centipede.
The crimes are solved, and Chris and Anthea progress in self-understanding, but enough openings are left for us to wonder where Johnston might take these characters next. Through a camel’s eye relies more on the little details of lived lives than on the big dramas to provide interest, which is exactly why I enjoyed it.