Dorothy Johnston: On Writing a Mystery Quartet

dorothyjohnston_quartet_600I am thrilled to welcome my guest, the distinguished, award-winning author Dorothy Johnston. Dorothy has written nine novels, including a mystery quartet featuring security consultant Sandra Mahoney. The four books have recently been released as ebooks by independent Australian publisher Wakefield Press. Wakefield published the first three, The Trojan DogThe White Tower and Eden in paperback editions. The last of the quartet, The Fourth Season, is new. Each book is set during a particular season.

Here are her thoughts on writing a mystery quartet.

The Trojan DogDespite appearances and stereotypes, motherhood is not such a bad training for criminal investigation.

My protagonist, Sandra Mahoney, falls into investigating a crime, much as I fell into writing about them. Sandra has young children. She’s an everywoman, learning as she goes.

I have a son and daughter, though mine are grown up now. Sandra lives in the house I lived in until recently, in Canberra, Australia’s national capital. Her children go to the schools my children went to. In the first book, The Trojan Dog, Sandra is a reluctant wife, an adulterer, and a recent returnee to the workforce. She has an eight-year-old son with a reading problem. She is the antithesis of the loner stereotype beloved by the genre.

My main male character is Ivan, a Russian-born IT person who understands the technicalities of cyber-crime much better than Sandra does, at least at the start. Detective Sergeant Brook, the third partner in my investigative trio, has leukaemia, and is forcing himself to keep on working as a policeman.

I didn’t start out intending to write any kind of detective fiction. I’d completed four literary novels before attempting a crime one, and my most recent literary novel is sandwiched between numbers two and three of my series. I was an enthusiastic reader of crime, but never thought I could write it. I was also fascinated by the technological revolution that began to impinge on my life in the early 1980s, in 1982, to be precise, when I bought my first computer, a few months after my son was born.

Despite appearances and stereotypesThe computer was an Apple 2. I’d carried my son into the shop in a car capsule. He was as good as gold all the time I was making the purchase. The young man who sold me the computer carried it out to my small car, where I told him he’d have to put it in the boot because there wasn’t any room inside, the car being filled, as usual, with baby paraphernalia. The young man looked very put out at this, as though he expected that the baby should go in the boot, and the precious machine on the back seat, no doubt with a seat belt to keep it safe.

The third book in my quartet, Eden, is about Canberra’s sex industry. In Canberra, prostitution is zoned light industrial, which means that it’s legal in the light industrial zones of Fyshwick, Hume and Mitchell and illegal everywhere else. I sometimes think that is a kind of comment on the fact that, politics aside, Canberra has no heavy industry. At dusk on a Friday, when the used car yards and furniture shops of Fyshwick are closing up, the brothels come into their own. While writing Eden I had a lot of fun lurking around and watching who went in.

The Fourth SeasonThe Fourth Season begins when the body of young female environmental activist is found floating in Lake Burley Griffin. Ivan, who was in love with Laila, is a suspect and has no alibi for the time of death.

Sandra has to weigh up her desire to learn the truth against her children’s needs. Added to this, Detective Sergeant Brook is absolutely against her involvement in the case.

It takes all of Sandra’s ingenuity and courage to steer herself, and her family, through the dangers that lead to an eventual unmasking of the truth.

The Trojan Dog was published in 2000 and won the ACT Book of the Year. I’m pleased and excited that all four books in my quartet are finally out there. It feels like a job well done.

The Sandra Mahoney Quartet can be purchased from the Wakefield Press website, either as individual novels, or, as a special offer, four books for the price of three.

You can find out more about Dorothy Johnston and her books here Dorothy is a member of Sisters in Crime Australia.


Dorothy Johnston_600I’m the author of nine published novels, including a quartet of mystery novels set in Canberra and a self-published collection of short stories, Eight Pieces on Prostitution.

The first of my mystery series, The Trojan Dog, was joint winner ACT Book of the Year, and the Age gave it their ‘Best of 2000’ in the crime section. It was published in Australia by Wakefield Press and in the United States by St Martin’s Press. The second, The White Tower, was also published in Australia and North America, and the third, Eden, appeared in 2007. All three feature the cyber-sleuth Sandra Mahoney and her partner, Ivan Semyonov, along with Detective Sergeant Brook, of the ACT police. The Fourth Season, the last book in the quartet, was published by Wakefield Press as an ebook in 2014.

With Eden, I returned to the subject of prostitution, which has long interested me and provided inspiration. My first novel, Tunnel Vision, is set in a Melbourne massage parlour. One of my literary novels, The House at Number 10, imagines Canberra from a sex-worker’s point of view. I’ve also published non-fiction pieces on the subject, including A Script With No Words.

Two of my literary novels, One for the Master and Ruth, have been shortlisted for the Miles Franklin award. Maralinga My Love is set during the time of the atomic bomb tests at Maralinga, in South Australia.

I’ve had numerous short stories published in magazines and anthologies.

I’ve completed an historical novel, Children of Ghosts and a novella, Ashes from the Headland. I’m currently working on a sea-change mystery series, set at the home of ‘Sea-change’, the TV series, on the south coast of Victoria. The first of these is called Through a Camel’s Eye.

I regularly review fiction for the Fairfax newspapers.

I’ve been a guest speaker at the Adelaide, Sydney, Melbourne, and Salamanca festivals; at the Canberra Word Festival, and both Australian Sisters in Crime conferences. Overseas invitations have included the Salzburg seminar on contemporary fiction, and residencies at Ledig House, International Writers Colony New York, and Lavigny in Switzerland.

I’m a founding member of the influential ‘7 Writers’ group, which began meeting in Canberra in the early 1980s, and continued as a writers’ workshop and discussion group for almost twenty years. A subject which continues to fascinate me from a literary point of view is Canberra, Australia’s national capital, where I lived for thirty years before returning to Victoria. Canberra features often in my fiction, and my feelings about the city are summed up in my essay, ‘Disturbing Undertones’.

I’m also a member of the Australian Society of Authors and Sisters in Crime, Victoria

One for the Master, The Trojan DogThe White Tower,  Eden, The Fourth Season, and The House at Number 10 can be bought directly from Wakefield PressWakefield Press is offering a special 4 for the price of 3 for The Sandra Mahoney Quartet.

– See more here.

Tomorrow: two extracts from The Sandra Mahoney Mystery Quartet.

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