Last weekend Gert went to the launch of Dorothy Johnston’s 10th book which is set in Queenscliff, a small coastal town near where we live on the Bellarine Peninsula in southern Victoria. Queenscliff is just inside the entrance to Port Phillip Bay. To get into Port Phillip Bay from Bass Strait, which is the only way for ships to get into the port of Melbourne, they have to pass through the dangerous Rip, a narrow channel with a high rocky seabed, a treacherous stretch of sea that wrecked many ships in the early days of settlement. Queenscliff provides pilots for the big ships to pass in and out through the Rip:
A tanker was making its way ponderously through the heads. A swift, slim orange pencil of a boat darted out to meet it….The orange sliver hooped and splashed its way towards the tanker, then on past it, whipped and swung around and drew close alongside. Now, even if Chris strained his eyes, he could not see the next stage, though he knew it by heart. The tanker did not slow down. The pilot’s driver, cutting his engine to move at the same speed, manoeuvred to within touching distance of its massive side. The pilot began his climb down. Slow. So slow. A less than human pace. Foot beneath foot and hand beneath hand, the great vessel and the tiny one coupled by this strange, unremarkable activity, repeated perhaps forty times a day. The slowly descending man was the weak link between the vessels…This pilot had brought the tanker safely out from the Melbourne docks. Now he was going home; but not for long. Next time, he’d be climbing up, to steer another tanker, or container ship or liner, safely into port. (189)
The sea and its dangers are a constant presence in Through A Camel’s Eye, not least because Constable Chris Blackie’s father was lost at sea in a pilot-boat accident. He came back to his birthplace to nurse his mother in her last illness, and now in his forties he has stayed on, telling himself, “Boring or not, Queenscliff was his backwater, and he wanted it to stay that way.” But Chris, we quickly learn, has dark depths beneath his surface calm.
His rookie new grad Anthea Merritt is not at all happy to have been posted to a small town two hours away from her boyfriend in Melbourne. The boyfriend is not making much effort to keep in touch, her new boss takes an interest in the police station garden that she finds frankly embarrassing, and the best Queenscliff can do for crime, apart from minor car accidents and pub brawls, is a stolen camel.
Chris and Anthea circle each other, keeping their distance but both making quite subtle judgments about the other:
She had seldom met a man who paid less attention to himself as a man. (6)
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 had been there. Trouble with the boyfriend. He’d guessed that too. (10)
Dorothy Johnston excels in this quiet observation. Over and again I came across insights and prose that delighted me:
So often in his life, it seemed, he found out about something good, or potentially good and valuable, only after it had been lost or spoilt. Then people came to him to complain, to demand or plead, all with the expectation that he could put right, retrieve or mend what he had never himself experienced. (149)
It seemed to him a foolish notion then, that humans should consider that they had earned some right to shelter from the elements, when the elements were so clearly and effortlessly superior. (153)
…men who, when they age, age suddenly, shrinking and shrivelling, a thousand fine lines appearing all at once, their skin drying and flaking as though at the switching off of an internal sprinkler system. (5)
At the heart of the book stands Riza the camel, both comical and exotic, practical and enigmatic, representing something different for everyone. For her trainer Julie she’s a lifeline, the only thing that gives her chaotic life purpose; for the elderly Camilla Renfrew, cut off from others by an inexplicable loss of her voice, she represents a form of silent companionship and imaginative freedom; for Anthea she’s the embodiment of the unchallenging tasks Queenscliff busies her with; for Chris she’s another job to be done carefully, sanely, logically. That’s one level of the plot. The other develops from it when, searching for Riza, Chris and Anthea find a discarded coat that connects them to the murder of a woman found 400 kilometres away in Swan Hill. As they work their way through recalcitrant teenage witnesses, eccentric locals, aggressive family members and the less-than-dynamic approach of the Swan Hill police, we become interested as much in what’s going on inside them as in following the trail of clues.
As with all good crime fiction, the interest is not really who-done-it. It’s in what happens, for good and ill, to the people caught up in the messes human failings – hasty anger, unacknowledged fear, ignorance and bravado – bring about. All this is handled with a deceptive ease. It’s an absorbing read, and at the end you want more of Chris and Anthea. Fear not: as a teaser, the book contains the first chapter of the next book in the series. Will Chris resign from the force? Will Anthea get over the supercilious Graeme? You’ll have to read on to find out.
If the producers at the Australian Broadcasting Commission had any money (they haven’t) this would make a great TV series.