Dorothy Johnston’s Mystery Quartet (featuring security consultant Sandra Mahoney)
|Dorothy Johnston relaxing with |
a copy of Eden
I decided to write a mystery quartet set in Canberra as a way of trying to understand Australia’s national capital, both as the city I loved and as a seat of government that is often misunderstood and derided by the rest of the country. I lived in Canberra for thirty years, from 1978 to 2008, before returning to Victoria’s Bellarine Peninsula, where I was born. My aim was to write four novels, one for each season, beginning with The Trojan Dog, and Canberra in the grip of a hard winter, and ending with The Fourth Season, which is set in autumn. The other two books are The White Tower (spring) and Eden (summer).
I’ve always been fascinated by the physical aspects of the city, the way the clear inland light seems to promise truth, the way it shines on the Parliament’s enormous, overbearing flagmast. Canberrans have in their mist an imposing castle on a hill and must struggle to define themselves against it, even if many of them do so unconsciously.
My protagonist is Sandra Mahoney. Sandra is an everywoman, falling into her first investigation, and soldiering on from there. My other series characters are a Russian IT person, Ivan Semyonov, and Detective Sergeant Brook of the ACT police, who suffers from leukaemia. Sandra’s two children, Peter and Katya, also play important roles. The Trojan Dog was joint winner ACT Book of the Year, and the Age gave it their ‘Best of 2000’ in the crime section. The White Tower was shortlisted for the 2012 Year of Reading. 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 and The House at Number 10 (Wakefield Press 2005) continues this theme.
In the 1990s, when I began writing my quartet, hardly any Australian writers were focussing on electronic crime. The ACT government once planned to make Canberra the IT capital of Australia, which seems a quaint notion now. Yet the secretive aspects of computer crime suit Canberra very well.
The Trojan Dog
The Trojan Dog is set in a Federal government department in the months leading up to the 1996 Federal election. It begins with the theft of $900,000 and the suspicions surrounding an unpopular division head called Rae Evans. Sandra works for Evans, is in her debt, and convinced that she is innocent. The atmosphere of paranoia, in the waiting time before an election, in a department threatened with abolition, is important for the story. Sandra receives unlikely help from a member of the department’s IT staff, an eccentric, shambling Russian called Ivan Semyonov, and then, as the investigation into Evans and the theft progresses, by an ACT Detective Sergeant who is obviously ill.
The novel contains a cast of mad public servants, each of whom is suspect in one way or another; including Bambi, a wordless child-woman who always wears a red cape, and Felix, another IT person, only ever encountered rushing into the department in his jogging shorts. Sandra and Ivan finally set a trap to catch the real thief.
The White Tower
When book number two, The White Tower, begins, Sandra and Ivan have launched a computer security business. They are also living together and have a daughter. (Sandra has a son by her first marriage.) The theme of parental responsibility is important in The White Tower, which begins with a grieving mother hiring Sandra to find out what happened to her son. Niall Howley’s apparent suicide is linked to the death of his character in a MUD game, but his mother has never been satisfied with this conclusion.
The controller of the MUD is am enigmatic Irishman based in County Antrim, Northern Ireland, with a penchant for the poetry of WB Yeats. Sandra’s investigation takes her Ireland where she quietly discovers more and more layers to Niall’s life and work. Detective Sergeant Brook becomes involved in the investigation when, back in Australia, Sandra’s son is kidnapped. It is Brook who finally unmasks the killer. As it turns out, Niall didn’t have just one secret passion; he had another, far more deadly than a MUD game.
‘Eden Carmichael died on a hot Tuesday afternoon in January. He was found lying across a double bed at one of Canberra’s best-known brothels, dressed in a blue and white flowered silk dress and a blonde wig.’
Thus begins Eden, set in a hot summer that sees Canberra initially empty of its politicians and many of its citizens as well. Solitude creates unexpected opportunities for Sandra, who is drawn into the ripples surrounding the cross-dressing local politician’s death when an anti-censorship lobby group hires her to investigate CleanNet, a company producing Internet filters.
At first the two seem to have no real connection, though Carmichael did attend a presentation the company arranged for a Federal Minister, which Sandra considers odd, given Carmichael’s long-standing anti-censorship views. She continues to research the company, at the same time building up a picture of Carmichael’s political and personal life, in particular his relationship with Margot Lancaster, the owner of the brothel where he died. His death is assumed to be the result of a heart attack, since he has already suffered one spectacular public heart attack, when he fell over the banisters at the Old Parliament House. Sandra’s investigation leads her to another brothel, in Sydney, and an assumed heroin overdose, before she finally discovers the truth.
The Fourth Season
The Fourth Season deals with the issue of who is going to win the battle for control over the seas surrounding Australia, with environmentalists lined up on one side, and the fishing, oil and gas industries on the other. When the body of a young female environmental activist and science student, Laila Fanshaw, is found floating in Lake Burley Griffin, Sandra’s life is turned upside down, not least because her partner, Ivan, was in love with Laila. Ivan is a suspect and has no alibi for the time of death. A further strain is put the relationship when another suspect, Don Fletcher, who worked in the Federal Environment Department, wants to hire Sandra to help him clear his name. Against opposition from Ivan, Sandra says yes and takes on the assignment.
Laila was a complex person, good friends with a Greens senator, and committed to her cause, but also unscrupulous in her use of men, and an accomplished hacker. While Sandra is attempting to understand Laila’s character, and the events that led to her murder, there is another ‘death by water’. This time the body of professional diver, Ben Sanderson, is found in Sandra’s local swimming pool. Sandra has to weigh up her desire to learn the truth against her children’s needs.
Both children are deeply affected by Laila’s death and Ivan’s reaction to it. Added to this, Sandra’s friend, Detective Sergeant Brook, is absolutely against her involvement in the case. Laila had a secret passion, and though this passion was connected to her love of the sea, nobody who knew her guessed what it was. In pursuit of this passion, she stumbled on a major criminal activity. It takes all of Sandra’s ingenuity and courage to steer herself, and her family, through the dangers that lead to an eventual unmasking.
- 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 at her website