Instalment 1: pages 1-5 [In which we meet Elliot Naylor and his new employer]
A liquorice all-sorts set of books covered one foyer wall. Rows of law reports: blue for the All England, red for Chancery Cases, Green for Kings Bench and Victoria, caramel for New South Wales and dirty beige for the Commonwealth Law Reports. Each spine striped with a red or black label or stamped with gilt. A thorough collection, gaudy as tartan and out where their machine-tooled spines told clients what they were paying so much for. Knowledge. The thin, stale smell of expensive education impregnated the furniture and swallowed the reception girl’s perfume.
She was over-ripe, excessively permed, her hair sharply divided by the clinging spider of a phone headset. I sat straight and respectable on the leather lounge so not to frighten any arriving politicos or plutocrats. My second-best suit was fresh from the dry-cleaner’s shroud. I might have passed for a client, or a client’s mail clerk. The girl put a call through to announce my arrival. When she hung up, she looked me over and then pulled a magazine from her drawer. She turned the stiff, glossy pages sulkily. Someone must have let slip I wasn’t money, or my suit had worn smoother than I’d thought. I checked my watch against the foyer clock. I was a little late. I turned over the Canberra Times. Win for minister: sex slave raid, proclaimed the headline. It seemed the Minister for Justice and Customs’ national taskforce on trafficking in women had busted up a number of brothels in Melbourne, Sydney and two in Canberra where desperate unfortunates were held as virtual prisoners to work off their debts to people smugglers. The minister, flanked by federal police at a press conference, had a triumphant grin. In one corner of the splash colour photo, off behind the minister, was a striking girl with pale skin and curling copper hair. Probably an advisor. That was the first time I saw Jenny, just noting her as a pretty face. Nothing else, yet. The article proclaimed that six men were to stand trial for charges of people smuggling, false imprisonment and breaches of various brothel and labour regulations. Much further down it noted that the liberated women were being fast-tracked for deportation. None had valid visas.
I passed my time wondering why David Carmichael had asked me to come in. I presumed he had a big case and needed some short-term clerking. Once he’d thought I had promise as a law student, though not as much as his daughter, naturally. Marina must have convinced him to throw me something for old time’s sake, I’d thought.
I hadn’t seen David since Marina and I had split up. Things had been strained anyway, with her finishing her degree first and going to work at a Sydney firm. Commuting weekends to spend time with me was already working out badly before everything else that happened last year. Still, Marina and her family had stuck by me through the worst. Even if they hadn’t been in the audience for the coda. In a small town your reputation is like the good glassware, unforgiving of bad accidents. I’d seen Marina around a little since she’d moved back to work with the Minister. Her new job had turned up soon after my own mess. I took David’s request I come in and see him as a sign relations were thawing. But I was trying to guess David Carmichael’s motives, so of course, I was wrong.
A door opened down the corridor and the receptionist shot the entering figure a Pavlovian smile. The looming man hardly acknowledged her.
“Elliot,” he said tersely, proffering his hand like a favour. I guess I wasn’t paying for the privilege, so I shook it. A hand wasn’t something I was used to Marina’s father offering. I wasn’t used to him offering much at all. The beefy paw exerted too much pressure, and felt slick.
“David,” he said, ushering me down the hall and into his chambers. He had a room and a half: three walls lined with more law books, and a view over inner Canberra and the lake. He sat across from me with his back to the light, obscuring the lake view, fingers skirting the table’s ochre surface. I presumed he intended me to sit on one of the four Edwardian antiques, so I did.
Carmichael had the look of a man who dislikes how his own wealth tastes. A handsome, wide face with eyes narrowed by drooping upper lids and marred by a thin pinched nose. His lips made a thin line of colour in a tarnishing indoor complexion. A face and figure moulded by the accumulating weight of a legal career. Life at the bar was pressing his broad footballer’s build out of frame. I crossed my ankles and waited for him to start. His voice abhorred a vacuum.
“Elliot - Marina’s gone,” he said.
“I haven’t seen her in over a week. No-one knows where she is.”
I shrugged: “Well, she hasn’t called me either.”
“You’re not concerned? She wouldn’t just walk away from her job …”
“She hasn’t phoned in at the office?”
“She took some leave, but was meant to be back when Parliament resumed. They called me. Said her mobile was off. Marina didn’t even let me know where she was going. I had to give them some story about a family emergency. But you know she wouldn’t do this, not in the Minister’s office.”
I nodded. Marina was political, ambitious. A ministerial advisor doesn’t skip work during a sitting week, and would turn off their mobile as soon as their own oxygen; particularly at a time when her minister had just made national headlines. It really should have been her at the edge of that photo, I thought. Not the red-haired girl.
“You’re calling in all her past boyfriends for a chat?”
“Look, I called her at home last night. She’s still not there. No-one’s heard.”
“I want you to find her.”
“Me? David, I mean – sure, I’m a bit worried. But don’t you think you’re over-reacting? She’s in a high-pressure job. Maybe she’s just clearing her head. Considering a change.”
Even as it escaped my lips, it didn’t sound enormously plausible. I’m normally very good at fitting together quick, polished, plausible answers – but David is good at seeing through obfuscation. Still, something was saying to me, Don’t get involved with the Carmichael family again. Advice I should have heeded, as things turned out.
“You know that’s not true, Elliot,” he said. “I’m worried. You know her friends, you know where she’s likely to go … I want to find her. You handled your – difficulty – well last year. You’re capable.”
“Why not the police?”
He fidgeted some more.
“You’re right, I might be over-reacting. But I don’t want to embarrass her - ”
“Or the Minister? Don’t want to detract from his good press?”
“I get a lot of Commonwealth briefs.”
I liked Charmichael about as much as reality TV, and he lacked the charm of being even inadvertently amusing. Still, there was something here to get worried about. Marina and I were still speaking, and I was beginning to feel a tick of concern in sympathy with Carmichael’s own tightly wound anxiety.
Here, in 1 300 words you find:
1. Why is Doug doing this?
2. An introduction to Canberra, Scandanavia of the South
3. A Legal-ish Disclaimer Thingee.
Why an on-line crime novel?
Tackling the first part: why on-line? Writing every weekday for my blogspot was getting in the way of just even finishing a draft of the first novel I’ve had a really serious stab at since high school. (I wrote three between ages 12 and 18, all bad but at least finished, none since.) I am hoping committing to this on-line will enable me to (a) finish a draft; (b) get some feedback and suggestions for improvement, even encouragement; and (c) know that someone is reading this, and presumably if they keep reading it, enjoying it.
As for “why a crime novel” … well, I’m not entirely sure this is a crime novel. It started out as a private eye novel set in 1938s Melbourne, until I realised what a terrifyingly hackneyed Raymond-Chandler rip-off that would become. I only kept the central character’s name. It needed to be contemporary, but the contemporary crime novel it seems has to be written by a coroner or forensic anthropologist. How, with no real background in scientific criminal investigation could I write a detective novel?
First thing, get rid of the detective. Have someone poor and biddable asked to look into a problem for someone rich and powerful. The classic scenario, a local magnate’s missing younger wife, wouldn’t work for me.
What about a local barrister who has a missing daughter and hires an ex-boyfriend to find her? Not bad as a scenario, but why wouldn’t he go to the police? And why would the ex-boyfriend accept the job? (Why would he need, financially or otherwise, to get involved?) Answering these questions gave me the germ of a plot. Whether I’ve turned it into anything is another question entirely.
But why Canberra? All successful crime/detective fiction has a strong sense of place. Also once when pontificating on the idea of writing, rather than actually doing any, I said to my good friend Marissa that I’d find it easier to write an historical crime novel set in 1890s London (or maybe 1930s Melbourne) than a contemporary novel set where I lived. Marissa replied (something along the lines of) she found it terribly disappointing that someone who wanted to write could not think of a plot that would work in the city in which they lived.
It started me thinking.
Canberra has plenty of hooks for a plot-driven genre like detective fiction. (It has plenty for someone prepared to write on the human condition as well, but I’ll leave that for those with real talent).
Notes on Canberra as a setting
Canberra, like Washington DC, is a city created to serve Federal Government. It contains the national parliament, politicians, government departments, bureaucrats, the highest court in the land, national institutions, the headquarters of the military and intelligence services, and several universities. It also has some rapidly growing service industries, particularly IT, and some local agriculture of the dairy, wool and wine variety.
Sure, there’s the obvious potential for political intrigue, with the Federal government and all. But let’s not forget that the Australian Capital Territory is Australia’s very own Scandinavia, where nothing is illegal, just taxable. Prostitution and pornography are both “light industrial” land uses, and possession of marijuana for personal use is the equivalent of a parking offence.
Canberra has the highest average income per capita of any Australian city, and the highest per capita number of university graduates; but also the highest per capita number of heroin overdoses. As a tiny, self-governing jurisdiction it has flirted with legally-regulated euthanasia and a trialing of supervised heroin injecting facilities for addicts. While often derided as a “bureaucrat’s socialist utopia” where everyone works for the government or a university, there is a segment of the population who are genuinely struggling, or stuck on welfare in government housing, and who probably feel all the more disenfranchised amidst the relative affluence.
It is, though, very possible only to move in highly-educated circles in Canberra. Yes, there are people who talk the way people do in this novel. (Though even in Canberra, they’re probably only a large-ish fraction of the population.)
Some truly weird stuff crops up in the local crime reports - especially people trying to hide murders by faking heroin overdoses, and persistent rumours of bodies weighted and dumped in the Lake. There have been a number of prominently covered murder cases including the fatal shooting of an Assistant Police Commissioner in his driveway and the decapitation of a diplomat. Then you have the weirdness that comes out of the universities, diplomatic corps, our intelligence services and the defence force academy. And the fact that at 350,000 people or so, it’s a large country town with no anonymity where everyone knows everyone else’s business.
Canberra is a small town. This is worth emphasising. If the plot, such as it is, appears to turn on strange coincidences of certain people knowing each other or lives overlapping - live in Canberra five years and you’ll find it happens every day.
It’s a pleasant place to live: planned, suburban, basically too spread out for its population and extraordinarily gifted with green-space and tree-lined streets (though at some cost in the recent bushfires). However, it doesn’t take much imagination to see it as a place with a potential underbelly that could get very gritty indeed.
How well I take on that challenge, I don’t know.
Disclaimer thingee (coz there’s always someone who assumes it’s autobiography)
This is a work of imagination. Yes, some elements of the story are based on newspaper reports of actual events, including a significant part of Elliot’s background. I am interested in these occurrences only as scenarios, plausible occurrences. This attempt at a novel is in no way meant as commentary upon real events.
Yes, I borrow a number of identifiable locations, people may be a little surprised to see their lounge rooms, the outside of their house or places I used to live or visit turn up. Most obvious among these is the weeknight open-house dinner party. I do know people, some of whom may be reading, who used to run such an event. They are, however, as people in no way present in the narrative.
Yes, I have known Canberra lawyers, barristers, ministerial staffers and some people with nice houses in Red Hill. Unlike Elliot, I hold no antagonism towards any of them: the chip on his shoulder is entirely his own. True, like Elliot, I used to work as a part-time legal librarian at a law firm. I, however, enjoyed the work and the firm I worked for was entirely scrupulous.
Yes, the story may be set in places that do actually exist, but the events and characters are entirely fictitious: real life is, unfortunately, kind of dull and not filled with corruption, shady deals and rotten pillars of the community. If you can see yourself, your friends, your family, your employer, your love life or your pets portrayed in scandalous detail in this little work, then in my opinion - as someone who used to have to vet a student publication for anything that was potentially defamatory - you are a total fruit loop and far too easily offended.
If you read this and run a brothel you will probably be unhappy - I am afraid I haven’t even been on an open day/public education tour of the establishments in Fyshwick. I know that there are properly unionised and regulated brothels in the ACT. I know the Eros foundation lobbies for the industry and to improve its standing. However, there are undoubtedly dubious operators out there; just as there are dubious lawyers and politicians. (Open a newspaper.) This is a work of fiction, and if everyone in it was a nice law abiding citizen who was an ornament to their profession or industry, there would be very little to write about.