Dorothy Johnston: The Swan Island Connection


When a 10-year-old boy is strangled in the coastal town of Queenscliff, it's out of the league of local plod Chris Blackie. In come the officers from the Criminal Investigation Unit in the nearest large town. Almost immediately they conclude that the killer is a local man who had befriended the boy. Add the fact that the boy comes from a troubled background where he has been abused and neglected, and the whole recipe for a paedophile killing is there, the CIU men think. But Chris Blackie thinks it’s odd that a high-up official from the nearby Swan Island military facility is taking an interest in the case. Swan Island, in reality as well as in the novel, is a training base for the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS). As Johnston laconically observes,
Regular army recruits were only stationed on the island for a few months, for what was referred to as the ‘dirty tricks’ part of their training. ASIS trainees were reputed to be there for longer since dirty tricks formed a bigger part of their overall mission.

The second in the Sea Change series that began with Through A Camel’s Eye pits the decent Blackie, a particularly likeable specimen of the flawed low-key hero, against the amoral mindset of the secret service and the cynicism of police officers who have left ordinary human-scale policing behind. His colleague Anthea is even more conflicted. The accused murderer is her lover, but her history of bad man choices leaves her wondering if he really could be a paedophile and a killer.

We all know how it feels to be caught up in a system - often our work – whose rules don't sit easily with us. Chris and Anthea are used to this feeling, but now they're up against something tougher and nastier. It's the classic three-tier-thriller, with the good guy pitted against the system and the system beneath the system. The who and why, the twists of the plot, will keep you well and truly on the hook. And then there's the richly-created world of the Queenscliff coast, its tides, dunes, cliffs, lighthouses, trees and grasses and its changing skies, which will stay in your mind long after you close the book. You could read the Sea Change series just for the pleasure of writing like this:

When you stepped outside at night, on the outskirts of Queenscliff, away from houses and streetlights, when you crossed the borders of the town on foot, that's when you felt it, the deep darkness of the countryside.

The small sounds of nocturnal animals heading off to forage, the pilot boat leaving its moorings in the harbour, the last ferry of the night magnified in the water – silence was an illusion. It always had been. A rustle in the bushes to his right was a bird up late or a native rat. If you listened carefully, you could hear the soft honking of the swans. Lights over the water came from the far side of the island. The claim that it was truly dark was an illusion too. (151)

8 thoughts on “Dorothy Johnston: The Swan Island Connection

    1. And I’ve just read the latest Fred Vargas The Accordionist. That’s enough crime for the moment. Now I’m reading a new biography of Richard Nixon. (oh, did I say enough crime…)

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