Excerpts from Dorothy Johnston’s Mystery Quartet

dorothyjohnston_quartet_600We have a rare treat today—two excerpts from Dorothy Johnston’s award-winning mystery quartet.

The Trojan DogThe first extract is from the start of the first book in the Sandra Mahoney quartet, The Trojan Dog. Sandra is arriving at her new job, and has no idea that her boss, Rae Evans, is about to be charged with computer theft and fraud. [Note: The Trojan Dog won the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) Book of the Year in 2001.]

 What have I kept of Rae Evans from the moment, when she half-stood behind her desk and held out her hand to shake mine? I think it is the impression of white – white face, white shirt between the two halves of a power dark suit. Hers were night colours, and though it was early in the morning, and she was my new boss, it seemed as though the business day had not quite caught up to us, and maybe never would.

But Rae’s voice was level, businesslike. Her handshake was firm. She was head of the service industries branch of the Department Of Industrial Relations. I was the one holding the flowers, hugging them in fact, a potted cyclamen with pale pink blossoms that had only opened the day before. Rae glanced at it briefly and did not quite smile.

We talked for a few minutes about the report on clerical outwork I’d been hired to complete. We were supposed to be doing the local interviews ourselves and paying small teams of interviewers in the other States. Rae hinted that there were a lot of ends that needed tying up and that perhaps the women I’d be working with did not have the knots under control.

I waited for her to elaborate or be more precise, but instead she looked up at me and said, `Sandra? I don’t know whether you’re aware . . . I knew your mother – we used to meet at conferences. I liked her very much. How is she doing?’

I clutched my plant against my chest and said, `My mother died eight years ago.’

There was a fractional pause before Rae, paler than ever, replied, ‘I’m very sorry.’ ”

The Fourth SeasonThe second extract is from the final book in the quartet, The Fourth Season. Sandra by now is an experienced security consultant and solver of crimes. Peter and Katya are Sandra’s children and Laila Fanshaw an environmental activist.

Laila Fanshaw’s death was first reported on the late evening news, though her name wasn’t included in any of the initial reports. Katya had been asleep for hours. Peter should have been in bed as well, but he had a swag of maths homework, and, though he was tired and irritable, he’d insisted on waiting for Ivan to come home and explain a problem to him.

Ivan was my partner, Peter’s step-father and Katya’s natural one; and that night I had no idea where he was. He’d left the house straight after dinner and he wasn’t answering his phone. Peter had given up and was cleaning his teeth when Ivan walked in and went straight to the television.

As soon as the newsreader began to speak, the room contracted to a tinny box, ridiculously bright. The camera panned around Lake Burley Griffin. The reporter’s face glowed white, while police lights flashed behind him. As with all reports of violence at night, the scene, busy yet curiously static, took its atmosphere from dreams. The journalist stood in front of blue and white tape cordoning off a section of lake shore, where, he speculated, the assault may have taken place. The pulsating lights, the intensity of his face and body movements, made him seem closer to the water than he was.

A young woman had been found floating in it shortly before nine. Probably she would not have been found till morning, except that a middle-aged couple walking their dog had been alerted when the dog, a black Labrador, took off into the water and wouldn’t come back. When he did, he was dragging a corpse by the arm.

The reporter repeated these few facts, since he had little more to tell his audience – nothing that would identify the victim, only that she was young, and had been wearing a red waistcoat.

Ivan was standing close to the TV, absolutely still.

Peter came up behind him and I caught my son’s expression, the glint of fear that came as much from Ivan’s failure to react as what filled the screen.

The presenter moved on to another item while Ivan brushed past us and went to the phone.

I heard the words, ‘I’m coming over,’ before he grabbed a set of car keys and was gone again.

Peter’s face was closed and blank. I wanted to put my arms around him, but knew that, if I tried, he would push me away.

What does it mean to be told too little? What does this particular lack mean to an adolescent boy, or to his mother, who happens to be a person endeavouring to make her living by collecting information? It was an endeavour that, for years up until that moment, had sustained, if only just, both my life and that of my children—sustained in a thousand practical, easily overlooked ways. While I tried to think of something to say to Peter, and worried about where Ivan had been, and where he was going now, I knew I was facing a moment that severed before and after with the sharpest of knives.”

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.

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