Thoughts from below the equator – an interview with Dorothy Johnston (part one)

DSC_0255Dorothy Johnston is an award-winning Australian author. She’s written novels, short stories and a quartet of mysteries featuring Sandra Mahoney. It’s through these mysteries that I came to know her. They’re set in Canberra and, as well as being beautifully written examples of the genre, they convey the subtle differences between life in the northern and southern hemispheres.  The questions she asked when she interviewed me on her own blog were so perceptive that I wanted to turn the tables and try to get some of her own inside story. Her replies were so rich and interesting that I didn’t want to lose anything of what she said so I’m posting them in two parts. Here’s part one.

From the point of view of a traditional fan of crimes/mysteries, it seems that the whole area of computer crime (identity theft, alibi establishing, the location of suspects/victims at specific times through mobile phones or computer log-ins), has added a new dimension to the genre. Is that the way you see it? Does your own expertise in the field open up possibilities different from the conventional ones?

I’m no technical expert, but neither is my protagonist, Sandra Mahoney. Her partner, Ivan, knows a lot more about the IT world than she does, at least at the beginning. In the first book in my quartet, The Trojan Dog, Sandra falls into investigating an electronic crime, much as I fell into writing about them. She’s an everywoman, learning as she goes.

The mystery quartet – after The Trojan Dog comes The White Tower, then Eden, then The Fourth Season – is my way of writing about Canberra, where I lived for thirty years before moving back to Victoria, close to where I was born. Canberra, the most stratified and Gothic of Australian cities, had ambitions to become the IT capital of the country, an ambition which seems quaint now; but in the early 1990s, when I began my quartet, a lot of people were taking it seriously. The slipperiness, often the invisibility, of electronic crime still seems to fit well with the national capital – the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing – or pretending not to know – the government as the country’s biggest spender, and therefore a most attractive target for thieves.

On another level, writing about electronic crime appealed to me imaginatively. Some years ago, I discovered a description by Umberto Eco of three types of labyrinth, and this description has stayed with me.

First, Eco says, there is the classic labyrinth of Theseus. Theseus enters the labyrinth, arrives at its centre thanks to Ariadne’s thread, slays the minotaur, then leaves. He does not get lost. Terror is born of the fact that you know there is a minotaur, but you do not know what the minotaur will do. Then there is the mannerist maze. As Ariadne’s thread is unravelled and followed, the Theseus figure discovers, not a centre, but a kind of tree with many dead ends, many branches leading nowhere. There is an exit, but finding it is a complicated task. Finally there is the net, which is so constructed that every path can be connected to every other one. This labyrinth has no centre and no one entry or exit.

Cyberspace, where crimes using computers are committed, is clearly this third kind of labyrinth. The computer criminal, hacker, virus king etc. can be tracked, but the mode of tracking, of following the thread, soon corresponds to becoming lost in the maze, which indeed itself can become the minotaur.

I find this space enormously appealing. Yet what also appeals to me is the traditional structure of a crime investigation, a fictional one, that is, the progression from a beginning to an end where the criminal is identified and caught. I like the tension that’s created by putting one inside the other.

That’s a terrific analysis of how the genre works. I’ll no doubt be stealing it in the future. Let’s be more basic now, though. I knew, of course, that the seasons in the southern and northern hemispheres are reversed but I was somehow more aware of it when I read The White Tower. Is that the sort of experience you have when reading books written by ‘northern’ authors?

The quartet was always going to be ‘four seasons’ – one novel for each. The seasons are distinct in Canberra, for someone who was born and grew up on the coast. (The White Tower is Spring.) I like turning things upside down for northern hemisphere readers. In the same way, I like looking at snowbound French villages on television when the temperature outside my window is forty degrees.

You’ll find images of Aberdeen in January have a similar effect, only without the prettiness. Does the genre differ in Australia from crimes or mysteries written here up north? If so, can you tell me a bit about the nature of those differences?

I thought you might ask about this, and I really don’t have an answer. It’s a truism to say that Australia was a convict settlement, that Europeans’ sense of themselves in this country began with ritualised crime and punishment, compared with, for example, religious conviction in North America. It’s a truism that, in my view, has far-reaching consequences, but I don’t have the space to go into them here. Bill – you said you could write an essay in answer to each of my questions, and you’ve presented me with the same dilemma! Briefly, there’s a strong – and brutal – line of inheritance from convict days, and at the same time contemporary fiction that goes in multiple directions – from cosy to hard-boiled and everything in between. One general comment made by critics from time to time is that we favour private operators rather than police procedurals. Interestingly enough, one of my favourite writers, Barry Maitland, who writes police procedurals, has chosen to set his series in London rather than anywhere in Australia.

…and that’s the point at which we’ll pause to reflect on Dorothy’s stimulating thoughts about both the mystery genre and the cultural influences that I, for one, had never really considered. The fact that we share a language tends to lead us to suppose that the sharing extends to values. It probably does, but the historical element Dorothy introduces adds a fascinating new dimension.

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