Secretive Swan Island: Q&A with Dorothy Johnston

Dorothy spoke to Robyn Walton, Sisters in Crime national co-convenor, about her latest novel,The Swan Island Connection (For Pity Sake, 2017).

 Dorothy, thanks for this second novel in your Sea-Change Mystery series set in regional Victoria. Like its predecessor, Through A Camel’s Eye, it features Senior Constable Chris Blackie and Constable Anthea Merritt.

 Your novel contains so many astute observations made in a quiet and succinct way that I found myself marking pages as I read. I’ve compiled some brief quotes to serve as prompts for you. Please tell us as much as you’d like to about the concerns and story components of The Swan Island Connection.

 ‘Olly could smell the seagrass. From time to time he heard swans honking.’

I have always been interested in the juxtaposition of a secret training base on Swan Island, idyllic Swan Bay, with its bird life and seagrass meadows, and the small adjacent town of Queenscliff. Olly, an important character in the novel, loves kayaking on the bay, as does Bobby, the boy he befriends. They know that, were they to try and land on the island, they would be quickly turned around.

There are many local legends and stories about Swan Island. My favourite 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 conservationist and bird-lover, had permission to observe and record them on the golf club part of the island, (to which members are allowed access after showing their ID at the checkpoint). One day, engrossed in her task, my mother 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.

‘[Chris] doesn’t have a clue what goes on over there [on Swan Island]. They never tell him anything.’

Readers of Through a Camel’s Eye, my first sea-change mystery, will have met Chris Blackie and his assistant Anthea Merritt, Queenscliff’s local constables.

A body is found at the railway yard, near the checkpoint and bridge leading to Swan Island, and detectives from Geelong are assigned to the case. From the first, officers from the island take an unexpected interest. As a constable, Chris Blackie would normally be at the very outer fringes of a homicide inquiry, but he knows the victim. As it happens, he knows the chief suspect as well.

‘[Detective Inspector Ferguson] was listening to Chris, and yet listening to someone, or something else as well.’

I have long been interested in telling stories from ‘below’. Chris and Anthea, as they grow to doubt and mistrust their superior officers, have to pit their wits against some very powerful people. It becomes apparent that Inspector Ferguson is only nominally in charge.

 ‘[Chris] did not consider it beneath his dignity to protect children and their pets.’

The Swan Island Connection begins with Chris trying to help ten-year-old Bobby McGilvrey who has been threatened, along with his dog, for reporting a gang of boys his own age for stoning and trying to run down a dolphin. It moves by degrees through tentacles of corruption and greed that link the town to the training base.

‘It would have been an important statement against the war, to cut the power supply even for an hour.’

The novel is set in 2009 when Australia still had combat troops in Afghanistan, and small protest groups travelled to Queenscliff to demonstrate against Australia’s involvement in the war. One of these protests plays a significant part in the story.

‘Then there were the gangs of bikers.’  + ‘Why spy on the spies? Perhaps it was Griffin’s idea.’

Though Queenscliff has a permanent population of less than 1,500, the numbers quadruple in the summer and biker gangs make the town part of their circuit around the Bellarine Peninsula. The bikers drink at the Esplanade Hotel, close to the checkpoint and the bridge. Soldiers in training on the island drink there too. Anthea discovers a small window overlooking the beer garden which would be perfect for spying on them.

‘When Minnie began to walk away, Chris followed her.’

Minnie Lancaster, a childhood friend of Chris’s, works at the Esplanade and helps Chris in his behind-the-scenes inquiries.

‘Tom practically lived at his coastguard office.’

Volunteer coastguard officer Tom Maloney is another important character, who also befriends Bobby. Because the coastguard office is between the railway yard and the bridge, this makes him a potential witness.

‘Suddenly, [Anthea] wanted no more than to hold him. It seemed ridiculous that she could not.’

When Anthea’s lover and next door neighbor is arrested for murder, Anthea struggles between trying to do her job and her inability to believe that he is guilty. Both Anthea and Chris are tested to the utmost. Not only are their jobs on the line because of what they discover, but their integrity and sense of justice, and even their lives.

Thanks very much, Dorothy.  

Dorothy is speaking on crime writing at 1oam Saturday 21 October at the Ballarat Writers Festival: