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Dorothy Johnston, Through a camel’s eye (Review)

June 24, 2016

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.

Dorothy Johnston, Through a camel's eyeBefore 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.

awwchallenge2016Dorothy Johnston
Through a camel’s eye
For Pity’s Sake Publishing, 2016
216pp.
ISBN: 9780994448521

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16 Comments leave one →
  1. June 24, 2016 5:16 pm

    The title makes me think of a needle through the eye of a camel – very disturbing. Sounds worth reading though.

    • June 24, 2016 5:20 pm

      Yes, it does doesn’t it Bill. It’s an enjoyable read – would be good for a long drive I reckon.

  2. ian darling permalink
    June 24, 2016 6:50 pm

    I have a weakness for police procedurals and I think your review brings out why they are so popular very well. A combination of genre familiarity (and the variations from that in each novel) and the opportunity for the crime novelist to be a sort of social commentator makes for good reading.

    • June 24, 2016 7:09 pm

      Ah, good points Ian. Now you say it, I think they are probably my preferred type – particularly when I think about crime television as I watch more crime than I read. It’s partly because of the variety of crime – not all gruesome often serial crimes! – and partly because they tend to be about community where broader social issues, as you say, can be explored.

      • ian darling permalink
        June 24, 2016 7:15 pm

        And this works particularly well with series. Peter Robinson’s Banks and Ian Rankin’s rebus are characters who cover a great deal of social history in their long running chronicles.

  3. carmelbird permalink
    June 24, 2016 10:06 pm

    As always, you review moves elegantly through the text under scrutiny, offering such a fresh, personal perspective. There is a sense that you, the reader and reviewer, really care about the novel, and mean to convey to your readers what it is about it that engages you, one way or another. This is, I suppose, where reviewing on a blog can have the advantage over reviewing for a newspaper. Also – I am always amazed at how much you read.

    • June 24, 2016 10:48 pm

      That’s a really nice thing to say, Carmel, thank you. But yes, I think you have identified the advantage of blog reviewing, that is, the freedom to address each book in the way it touches or appeals to me. I rarely feel I’ve quite done what I want, but I guess anyone who writes faces that challenge don’t they, even hobby bloggers.

  4. June 25, 2016 12:28 am

    I think you have a very valid point, one which I share. Yes, it doesn’t deny the right to comment on a book, it’s an alert not to expect expertise in the genre and yes, it also reminds readers that it’s not the focus of the blog.
    Every now and again, I read outside my areas of interest or comfort zone too!

  5. June 25, 2016 1:46 pm

    Thanks, WG! I always expect insightful and perceptive comments in your reviews, and I’ve never been disappointed, but of course it’s a thrill when those insights are applied to me!

    And to respond to wadholloway’s comment, when I was thinking about a title for my novel, I read a biblical reference to a city gate called the needle. Maybe other readers have come across it? When you think of it this way, it gives another slant to the saying about a camel passing through.

    • June 25, 2016 2:12 pm

      Thanks Dorothy. I’m glad my comments are of interest to you.

      And thanks for the response re the title. I was aware of the biblical teaching about it being easier for a camel to pass through a needle’s eye, than for a rich man to enter heaven, but I hadn’t heard about the “gate” called needle idea too (which I’ve just googled). It certainly adds another, more realistic or hopeful, slant!

  6. June 27, 2016 12:01 am

    Is there a difference between Andrea and Anthea? It’s unclear to me who Anthea is, but you mentioned Andrea is an assistant.

    • June 27, 2016 10:15 am

      Oh dear, it’s all Anthea. I know some Andrea’s and clearly got mixed up. I’ll go fix it right now. So sorry everyone!

  7. Meg permalink
    July 22, 2016 11:08 am

    I am not into crime novels, but I did like this one. Short and direct; characters and setting well defined.. Of course, I also enjoyed the descriptions of the area of Victoria, because I know it so well.

    • July 22, 2016 1:34 pm

      Thanks Meg. Reading about an area you know can be delightful can’t it?

      And I agree about enjoying the novel. It’s probably a perfect non-crime-reader crime book, isn’t it?

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