I’m very pleased that my novel ‘Gerard Hardy’s Misfortune’ has been longlisted for the Sisters in Crime Davitt Award. Way back in the mists of time, the first of my Canberra crime novels, ‘The Trojan Dog’, was runner-up in the inaugural Davitt Award. Then there were relatively few entries. This year there were 124. Women’s crime fiction is powering ahead in Australia.
My prose muse had deserted me for the moment, but I’ve been writing poems. The first one is called Smiling from a distance.
Smiling from a distance
People smile at one another
from a distance on the beach.
I think we might perfect the shine of distant smiles.
‘Hello,’ we call. ‘Good morning, afternoon, or evening.’
It’s become suddenly important to mark passage,
mark the time, to speak, stranger to stranger
across a measured space.
Waves lift. Light dances on water, water drinks the light.
The beach is still open to walkers,
provided that they walk in ones or twos;
open to surfers sharing drop and curl.
While on the headland, there above me, silhouetted,
a paraglider’s stopped by police in uniform.
He would fly, or as near as he is able,
but stands grounded, his sail filled with air.
Inland, just a little way, my sister walks straight corridors,
locked inside a nursing home.
Yet on the phone she’s cheerful,
pleased that she can walk at all, while many can’t.
I send her a smile across the short, uncoverable distance
separating us. Imagining, I place my feet just so.
Can a smile be measured?
I think the answer is both yes and no.
One and a half metres, repeated like a mantra,
becomes a background to the everyday.
No need for tapes: the eye does just as well.
Four women in a park sit properly, legal distance well observed,
wearing coats and beanies, for the air is cold.
They call out; one laughs, raising her hand to join the conversation.
Across this open human space they smile.
Second hand bookshop under lockdown.
The books form towers, in shadows
by the doorway and around the walls.
We are here, they say, our words are here.
Our spines face outwards to the dim room and closed door.
We are not arranged by date or author,
but known to the old man who has given us a home.
For many years I have been a customer,
coming in from the hot light of Hesse Street
in summer, or in winter,
having crossed the road against the slanting rain.
Always it has been the same inside,
the same smell, old and welcoming.
The owner sits outside on a wooden bench,
eating an ice-cream, affecting nonchalance.
I take a few steps forward, then ask, ‘Are you open?’
‘I might be,’ he says.
I stand on a chair and read titles with difficulty
in the corner furthest from the door.
If I were so rash as to choose one
from near the bottom of a pile
and attempt to remove it,
all those above would fall down and crush me.
It would be a way to go, I think.
For a wordsmith like myself, not a bad way to go.
The owner has come in, still eating his ice-cream
as though it were some kind of prophylactic
or excuse. ‘How are you coping?’ he asks.
I turn awkwardly, careful not to dislodge
by even a puff of breath, the tower
which seems to me now a statement in itself.
‘I’m alright,’ I say. ‘And you?’
‘I’m a bit lost,’ he says.
I nod and point. ‘I’ll have that one.’
It’s not the old friend I imagined finding and re-reading,
but in a bookshop under lockdown beggars can’t be choosers.
We exchange a glance. The old man, keeping his distance, smiles.
The libraries are all shut, of course,
and the proper bookshop up the road.
I pay the princely sum of seven dollars
and leave with my purchase underneath my arm.
Can books transmit the virus?
I hope not. Can I catch it by touching any one of them?
I believe not, but will wash my hands in case.
I realise I wasn’t watching the old man
get down the book I wanted without causing an avalanche.
No doubt he has his methods.
I would like to turn back and ask, but do not.
Instead I climb into my car and drive home.
Much as I dislike agreeing with Ernest Hemingway about anything, I find I am in agreement with him about Chekhov’s gun.
Hemingway’s views on hunting and bullfighting would alone be enough to put me off, but when I was staying at the Chateau de Lavigny (a Swiss writers residence) back in 2006, I found a marvellous collection of letters in the library. Famous writers from Europe and the United States had stayed at Lavigny over the years and the extract below is from a letter Hemingway wrote in the 1930s to his German publisher.
Hemingway was nursing a broken arm, having shot ‘a big horn mountain sheep ram, two bears and a bull elk’. Clearly the confinement caused by his injury didn’t suit him, since his letters at that time are full of complaints.
‘I have been here for a month with my right arm broken off clean below the shoulder, so I have not answered your cables or letters. Will you please send me press reviews of Farewell to Arms and some copies of Manner. I have never yet received even one copy of Manner. If you do not treat me better about books and make me more money, I will have to get another publisher.’
Some readers might applaud this forceful attitude, but to me it smacks of the egotism I associate with Hemingway.
So what is it about ‘Chekhov’s gun’ that finds me reluctantly siding with him?
The principle, stated simply, is that writers should not make narrative promises to readers that they don’t fulfil. The image Chekhov famously used was a rifle hanging on the wall.
‘If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.’ (quoted in Chekhov: The Silent Voice of Freedom.)
Not making false promises to readers sounds like a laudable principle, but, to return to the image of the gun, what if there’s not one hanging on the wall, but several? What if the wall is liberally decorated with guns? Should they all go off?
I’m thinking of ‘red herrings’, and the important part they play in crime fiction. Do readers feel cheated when the ‘red herring’ gun fails to go off? I don’t. I don’t mind narrative cul de sacs, or inconsequential characters making cameo appearances.
Some writers do have all the guns going off; their narratives are full of bangs and blows. I’m not that kind: I find constant violent action irritating. As a reader, I prefer to puzzle out things alongside the protagonist (or protagonists). I like room for reflection.
Hemingway mocked Chekhov’s principle and valued inconsequential details. He cited instances in his short stories of characters who appear then disappear without making an obvious contribution to the plot.
I find it a sweet irony that Hemingway managed to break his arm while killing animals for so-called ‘sport’. If the shooting accident had been in one of his stories, rather than something that had actually happened to him, where was the narrative moment for which the accident was a ‘kept promise’ of the kind Chekhov had in mind?
It would be lovely if Chekhov were able to have the last word on this, but unfortunately he can’t.
Hemingway had the last word when he committed suicide by shooting himself at the age of sixty-one. In that sense at least, all the former gunplay, the posturing and complaints weren’t false promises. The gun on the wall did go off many times and the last time it killed him.
photo of Dorothy Sayers
“Time and trouble will tame an advanced young woman, but an advanced old woman is uncontrollable by any earthly force.”
This wonderful quotation is from Clouds of Witness, a 1926 mystery novel by Dorothy L. Sayers, the second in her series featuring Lord Peter Wimsey.
I haven’t read Clouds of Witness, so I don’t know who says it, or whereabouts in the novel it comes. I should read it, being myself a lover and writer of mysteries.
I have, however, quoted Sayers’s lines quite often during the last few years. I sent them to a friend after I joined Grandmothers for Refugees. (I’m not grandmother, so I had to become an associate member.)
But I’m old enough to be a grandmother, which is the point.
I have nothing against young women. Many whom I meet are brave and wonderful, but I admit to indulging a private smile at the picture of them tumbling, gracefully, regretfully, at hurdles, while we grannies and would-be grannies, with our grey hair and whiskered chins march on.
I’m particularly mindful of the need to keep marching on as the launch of my twelfth novel approaches. I should feel proud to have got this far, and I do. I should feel grateful to all the people who have helped and continue to help me, and I definitely do. I look back at the hurdles where I fell and lay there panting, then got up again and stumbled on.
Sayers says we advanced old women are unstoppable by earthly forces. Of course it’s conceited to claim we are advanced. But I think we’re entitled to the claim when we look back at the hurdles and realise that any one of them might have been the end.
When I think of earthly forces, I mainly think of human ones, that did not want me to succeed. I don’t think of the wind and rain, the wild storms that have never been my enemies.
Thank you Dorothy Sayers, for your foresight and your strength of purpose. Thank you all the other writers of my age, who have never given up.
Well, the countdown has begun in earnest now, to the publication of my third sea-change mystery and twelfth novel, Gerard Hardy’s Misfortune.
A few days ago, I was asked what clan tartan the cover designer, John Cozzi, had used.
It’s a hybrid, based on the Johnston, my family’s tartan on my father’s side, but with brown lines added. Those lines, and the pale green ones as well, suggest bars on a cell to me, and will perhaps to others too, when they read the story. My murder victim, Gerard Hardy, is found in a cell-like room at the end of a basement corridor, underneath Queenscliff’s historic Royal hotel.
The title is a play on The Fortunes of Richard Mahony and Hardy is a Henry Handel Richardson scholar, in Queenscliff to conduct some unorthodox research.
As I’ve said in previous posts, I find Richardson’s a compelling presence still, just up the hill from the Royal, at 26 Mercer Street, where she lived as a small girl with her mother and father and her sister, Lil.
Gerard Hardy’s Misfortune isn’t an historical novel, but the history of the Richardson family does play an important part.
And the glue that holds the whole thing together is provided by the main characters in my first two sea-change mysteries, Chris Blackie and Anthea Merritt.
Some time back I wrote a post on ghosts at the Royal Hotel in Queenscliff.
At last the long process of writing and editing my novel about a murder in the basement of the Royal is coming to an end. I’m involved in discussions about the cover, which will be designed by the incomparable John Cozzi, who created the cover for the second book in my sea-change mystery series, The Swan Island Connection. I’ve just sent John some photos of the haunted old hotel.
Reading through my manuscript for the last time, I was surprised by the importance of ghosts. That sometimes happens to a fiction writer; she’s busy focussing on one theme or another, then goes back to the story and finds that something else has been important all along.
Brigid Magner is a literary scholar and lecturer at RMIT. Speaking about her research on literary tourism, Brigid makes the point that houses where famous writers have lived are often felt to be haunted.
“But the term ‘haunted’ does not always refer to ghosts as such. It can also refer to a ‘haunted’ state which can either be a pleasant communion with a bygone spirit, or it might entail distress and anxiety. It can also refer to the old ‘haunts’ of notable individuals.”
In my story, the young man killed in the Royal’s basement was a Henry Handel Richardson scholar, visiting Queenscliff for a tarot reading which he hoped would connect him to the spirit of his heroine.
In the 1870s, the child who was to become Henry Handel Richardson lived with her family at 26 Mercer Street, just a hop, step and jump from the Royal. No one has seen or heard or felt a ghost at 26 Mercer Street so far as I’m aware, but the Royal is reputed to be haunted from its basement to the top of its tower. Built in the 1850s, it was Queenscliff’s first morgue.
Ethel Richardson – or Ettie as she was known when she was a small girl – believed the spirits of the dead could communicate with living human beings, as did her father, Walter and her sister Lil. Ethel maintained this belief to the end of her life, though she was secretive about it.
I thought of all of this as background to a murder mystery, but then somehow it became more than background. Not that my main characters believe in ghosts or spirits; they don’t. But they are influenced by them nonetheless.
One suspect sees visions and has done since her childhood. Chris, my police constable, is sympathetic, but wary at the same time. Then one night he ‘sees’ Mary Richardson, Ethel’s mother, hurrying home from the fort where she has been struggling to learn book-keeping and Morse code so she can support her daughters.
Chris, who has always admired Mary, is moved and shocked.
I guess is that, looking back at the novel now that it is finished, I realise there’s a thin membrane, a kind of gauzy veil, separating my policeman and woman from the characters they are investigating. There aren’t two sides of the fence; there’s no black and white. This blurring of boundaries interests me. I hope it will interest readers too.
A few weeks ago I was contacted by Brigid Magner, a lecturer at RMIT who described her current project about literary commemorations in Australia. This project includes several houses where Henry Handel Richardson (Ethel, or Ettie as she was called when she was a young girl) once lived.
The two photographs at the start of this post are of 26 Mercer Street Queenscliff where the author lived in the late 1870s. The second is from a short play I wrote for history week 2016, and shows Ettie (played by Laura McMahon) reading on the veranda. The play took place in the garden, where the audience sat, and on the spacious veranda.
Talking to Brigid and thinking about her project got me wondering about literary pilgrimages and why people travel long distances to visit the homes of their favourite authors.
At the start of Flaubert’s Parrot, author Julian Barnes has his narrator ask, ‘Why does the writing make us chase the writer? Why can’t we leave well alone? Why aren’t the books enough?’
I sometimes fantasise about visiting Shrewsbury in England, where Ellis Peters set her Cadfael series. Cadfael is a Benedictine monk who lived at the Abbey of St Peter and St Paul in the 12th century. I imagine the cobbled streets and tiny, close-packed houses. And there would be some corners of the city where my imagination wouldn’t feel let down. But mostly I would have to go about in blinkers. And this is one problem, isn’t it, for literary pilgrims, that places where well-loved authors and characters have lived exist so vividly in our imaginations that we must be letting something go when we travel, perhaps thousands of kilometres, to see them with our own eyes.
One of my favourite pilgrimage stories concerns Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, a novel combining a wonderful mixture of naturalistic and allegorical writing, in which the devil visits Moscow. There is supposed to be a tour where the tour guide takes visitors to see the bench the devil sat on. Now I don’t know whether or not this story is true; it’s simply one of many legends surrounding a famous work of literature. And I don’t care if it’s true, though if I were seriously considering paying for a tour I suppose I would like to find out. I love the story because it’s a mixture of imagination, humour, and the desire to connect with works of fiction that have moved and changed us.
I do not have to go far to visit one of the childhood homes of Henry Handel Richardson.
I can’t get inside 26 Mercer Street since the house is privately owned and not open to the public. I did go inside once, as a special favour, and was disappointed by the modern renovations. The front garden, though, is recognisably what it would have been in the 1870s, when the Richardson family lived there for about eighteen months. Such a short time, at least from an adult perspective. So much happened!
My script for the play features Ettie and her younger sister, Lil, left alone in the house to mind their father, while their mother, Mary, was learning book-keeping and Morse code at the post office. Mary had been told that if she could complete her training in six months she’d be given a job as a postmistress. She had to do something to support herself and the girls since Walter was incapable of doing so.
When the Richardsons arrived in Queenscliff, Walter was still talking about working as a quarantine officer and developing a private medical practice, but it quickly became apparent that he could do neither. Those eighteen months witnessed the rapid decline that ended with him being committed to a Melbourne mental asylum.
From Mercer Street, Walter wandered off and got lost, fell into vociferous arguments with shop-keepers and people in the street, had to be fetched home by his elder daughter, then aged eight years old.
All of this made Ettie furious. She compensated by finding ways to live in her imagination.
I like to walk up and down Mercer Street, paying tribute silently, anonymously. I’m not sure what kind of tribute I’m paying exactly, but that doesn’t matter. The house has always seemed to me a heart of darkness. Even on sunny days it seems surrounded by a cloud of dread. But then there’s Mary’s practical good sense and determination, Mary hurrying home in the dusk, a little figure dressed in black, not knowing what chaos she would find there, but persevering anyway, day by day. And there are the two girls, Ettie bouncing a ball repeatedly, doggedly, against a blind wall of the house – so the legend goes – while she made up stories that took her as far away as possible from Queenscliff.
And my heart goes out to them. It doesn’t matter how often I trudge past, the feeling is the same. Childhood homes are like that, mostly, though a lucky few escape – compounds of misery and hope and desperate fantasies. It’s just that this small girl, whose presence I feel so strongly, went on to become Henry Handel Richardson, and wrote about her family, and created a masterpiece.
The Swan Island Connection, the second of my sea-change mysteries, will be launched in Queenscliff, Victoria, in October. Thanks to everyone who’s helped me get this far, and a special thanks to my publishers, For Pity Sake. It’s possible to order a copy from them now.
The Swan Island Connection features senior constable Chris Blackie, in charge of the small, some would say redundant Queenscliff police station. Anthea Merritt is his young assistant, trained in Melbourne and reluctant to bury herself in a coastal town.
The plot revolves around the secret training base on Swan Island, close to Queenscliff, and the connection between soldiers training at the base, the local police and CIU, and an investigation into the death of a ten-year-old boy.
Though the existence of a training base on Swan Island was denied for years by successive federal governments, Brian Toohey and Bill Pinwell, in their book Oyster: the story of the Australian Secret Intelligence Service offer some tantalising details.
‘(On Swan Island) the eager young army officers and NCOs learnt the dark arts of demolition, disguise, deception, sabotage, secret communication, and assassination… In one exercise on Swan Island the incorrect line of fire was set on a Chinese medium machine gun so that tracer bullets shot over the sandhills into the rigging of fishing boats in Port Phillip Bay. Fortunately for ASIS the only complaint made to the media was about the noise…’
There’s a special kind of snail that lives in the seagrass of Swan Bay. Because the bay is so shallow, it’s an important fish nursery and the baby fish eat the snails. Marine scientists didn’t know why the snail numbers were decreasing. They did a study and found that the lead in the bullets has been turning all the snails into males. I don’t know the end result of this, but I’d hope that those organising target practice would find other, safer ways than firing into the water.
Local legends date from the time when regular army personnel were allowed to have their families living with them on the island. One woman recalls a birthday when she was a small girl, how she and her friends had gone for a walk in their party dresses and come upon a soldier in full combat gear lying in the marram grass. Another incident involved a night-time exercise, with trainees climbed across roofs and one inadvertently jumping down onto the family dog.
Part of the island is occupied by a golf club and my favourite story is about my mother and a group of critically endangered orange-bellied parrots.
Each winter the parrots used to fly across to Swan Island from Tasmania and my mother, a keen environmentalist and bird-lover, used to observe and record them. Sadly, there haven’t been any for the past few years. My mother was allowed permission to enter the golf club part of the island. One day, engrossed in her task, she didn’t realise that the birds had ventured into the forbidden zone. Following them, she was shocked by a loud voice bellowing ‘Stop!’ and three soldiers in combat gear running through the bushes. Mum was a small woman, though by no means a cowardly one. She stood still, clutching her clipboard to her chest, and explained politely that she was tracking the parrots who couldn’t read the Keep Out signs.
Towards the end of As The Lonely Fly, a mother writes to her daughter about a woman who has been a strong influence on both their lives, and from whom they have not heard for eight years. This woman is the mother’s sister and daughter’s aunt Clara, who changed her name to Chava when she emigrated to Palestine in 1922.
‘My sister was an idealist, and it is possible that in spite of all that has happened she remains one to this day. We are all idealists, why else would we be here, but she was more so. There wasn’t a practical bone in her body. She didn’t know people.’
As The Lonely Fly is an epic work of fiction, with a huge cast of characters, moving from Palestine under the British Mandate, to Russia, to the United States and back to Palestine. But Chava remained for me a focal point throughout. I did not find her impractical, or ignorant of people; quite the opposite in fact. So how is it that Chava’s sister Frieda, who follows her to Palestine and who, with her husband, builds and runs a successful noodle factory, could be wrong? Or am I wrong? What are readers meant to think?
Chava joins the Labour Battalion, draining a swamp, then building roads and planting trees. The battalion attempts to create good relationships with its Arab neighbours. Chava’s beliefs are put to practical tests, which are brilliantly evoked, and for a while it seems as though the group might have some chance of lasting success.
‘It took them a day to dig out the holes and insert the trees, and the next day there were more. They planted them along the shy river. When the sun slipped towards the sea they lit another fire. Stunned by fatigue, Chava stared mutely at the heat shimmering above the flames, everything at the fire’s periphery seeming to lose anchorage and shape.’
Chava helps Zipporah, the niece to whom the letter is addressed, emigrate to Palestine, and helps her find work as a housekeeper, though she longs to be ‘out in the open, building a city, building roads’. But jobs are scarce. Dowse’s descriptions of daily life give her characters and their idealism a very practical core.
When Zipporah is taken to a plantation at Petah Tivkah she’s thrilled.
‘For Zipporah it was all a wonder. Row upon row of citrus trees stretched out, all a neat size, their leaves the same dark ceramic green. The air smelled sweet though the blossoms had gone and the fruit was still ripening; she imagined the sweetness came from the sap itself. The hills were studded with grape-heavy vines, the soil was drained a rich chocolate brown, watered with channels from the river and underground springs. How often had she heard this had once been a swamp? It was another thing to see.’
During the day they work; at night they dance and sing and argue about politics. As time passes, Chava’s group, wanting Jews and Arabs to unite in an international workers’ movement, though divided amongst themselves as to how to achieve this, becomes isolated, as the tension, then violence between Jewish settlers and Arabs increases.
While all this is happening, Chava’s younger sister, Marion, (the anglicised form of her name), and her parents are trying to make a different kind of new life for themselves in the United States. Marion’s story is told in counterpoint to Chava’s and Zipporah’s, often through letters, though Marion does visit Israel at the end of the book.
The dreams of the immigrant are a constantly recurring theme in As The Lonely Fly, expressed in songs, in conversation and argument, in the hope of safety and freedom from persecution, in images of physical toil that mean something because they are contributing to building a home. Always there is the search, through Dowse’s questioning and restless prose, to embed these dreams in daily life, to make daily life in the ‘new’ country a sufficient answer. But in Palestine in the 1920s and 30s, daily life can never be separated from its political context – the machinations of the British, the rise of Hitler and Stalin.
Dowse relates the collapse of Chava’s dream with great poignancy and delicacy, following her deportation to the Soviet Union after she is jailed for supporting Arab riots; while in Palestine, after the 2nd World War, the state of Israel is being forged.
As the title suggests, As The Lonely Fly is quintessentially a story of exile and migration; and for humans, if not for birds, this is a lonely business. Each of the three women the novel centres on must make her own decisions and adjustments, and, perhaps inevitably, end up being misunderstood by other members of the family. Sometimes decisions are taken out of a character’s hands, as with Chava’s deportation, but even without that stark example, an individual’s dreams and hopes for justice, her longing to make a contribution, are bound to be compromised. As The Lonely Fly tells an important, timely story, through its rich variety of characters and beautiful prose.
As The Lonely Fly can be pre-ordered from For Pity Sake Publishing here.
My Big Breast Adventure is a path breaking book which crosses the boundaries between a factual account of one woman’s breast cancer treatment, a philosophical discussion about what it means to be sick – and what it means to be well – and a celebration of humour in the face of adversity.
‘..when one has just had a cancer diagnosis and is about to undergo major surgery, laughter is at a premium and does not come easily,’ Jennifer McDonald writes.
Yet an early chapter heading reads ‘Cut, Poison, Burn and Laugh’ and time and again I found myself laughing while reading My Big Breast Adventure, which is based on the author’s blog posts and includes comments by readers. When I stopped to think and wipe my eyes, I asked myself why I was laughing when the author was going through hell. Answer: I was laughing because she made me laugh. McDonald’s humour is the buffer between her threatened sanity and the daily, weekly, monthly rounds of tests and chemo, radiation, more tests and more chemo.
There are many examples I could choose: here is one about hair loss.
‘I cut all of mine off before starting treatment even though my carers told me the hair probably wouldn’t fall out until about week three. Why wait to be bald I say? No word (or movement thankfully) on the eyebrows and lashes as yet. As my sister reminded me though, we McDonald girls come from staunch Celtic, Methodist stock which means we have eyebrows like John Howard and leg hair like the family dog.’
McDonald’s humour is like a dance with a quick, flicking two-step at the end. It is insouciant, irreverent, compassionate and warm. As readers would expect, anger and sadness, nausea and crushing fatigue are part of the story. They are acknowledged and dealt with. Jokes don’t take the dark side away; they make it into something more.
‘..I believe there are much worse things than death – being kidnapped by Boko Haram, having your business put into general administration, sitting by the bedside of a dying loved one, or living in Tony Abbott’s (Australian Prime Minister at the time of writing) electorate. Hang on, I do live in his electorate –what the FEC?’
FEC is an acronym for an extra chemo cocktail which McDonald took for nine weeks after her twelve-week standard chemo program was finished. For Father Ted fans, it’s also an irresistible reminder of Mrs Doyle offering a cup of tea to Father Jack. McDonald of course makes the most of this connection.
When discussing the importance of active acceptance, the author refers to Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now, and on the next page quotes a poem by an ancient Sufi mystic. Quotations and references abound, but they never feel intrusive in the text, or stuck on for effect. They don’t detract from the central story; they enrich it.
McDonald makes the point that, while, she has striven for accuracy in describing her treatment and its effects, both physical and emotional, My Big Breast Adventure is not a therapy manual. Though she refers throughout to aspects of traditional and complementary medicine, she stresses that her approach is personal; she is not setting out to tell others what to do when they receive a cancer diagnosis, or where to look for help and guidance. Yet I’m sure her book will be a help and guide to many, not least because of her unfailing sense of humour.
- My Big Breast Adventure can be purchased for $24.99 paperback and $9.99 ebook from For Pity Sake Publishing.