It was late in the day, relatively speaking, when Dorothy Johnston began writing her mysteries. Twice shortlisted for the Miles Franklin, Johnston was a seriously literary writer before turning her talents to a different kind of fiction. I’ve always been bad at distinguishing genres, finding it hard to slot a book into detective fiction, crime fiction, mystery or thriller, unless there’s a clearly defined detective in it like Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe or Agatha Christie’s Poirot. In The Trojan Dog, the first of Johnston’s Sandra Mahoney mysteries, Mahoney falls into her crime-solver role almost by accident, a younger, contemporary version perhaps of Christie’s Miss Marple. She does qualify as a detective, however, so long as you take a broader view of it, and don’t insist on her wearing a badge or working as a private eye.
Yet three additional things distinguish the Mahoney books, aside from the fine quality of Johnston’s prose. The first is Mahoney herself, who stubbornly fails to conform to any preconceived notions about detectives, lay or professional. What she is when we meet is a recently separated single mother with a child under five. There are many female detectives but none besides Mahoney that I know of who are mothers as well. But while Mahoney resists playing to type, what she shares with so many of her fellows (and so far, despite the steady growth of female sleuths, the fellows still predominate) is being so emphatically an outsider. At the start she doesn’t even have a job. If this is soon remedied with temporary government work it also serves to highlight her fundamentally recalcitrant nature.
The second is Johnston’s early grasp of the dangers posed by our increasing reliance on computers. Published in the year 2000, at the birth of the new millenium, The Trojan Dog was one of the first of genre fictions, certainly the first in my ken, to finger computer crime. As the series progresses both the crimes and Johnston’s descriptions of them become markedly more sophisticated and sinister. In The White Tower, appearing three years later, Johnston tackles the whole wide underworld of games, and Mahoney and her new partner Ivan have hung out their shingle as security consultants dealing in the main with white collar crime. The last of the novels, Eden, has Mahoney on her own again if only temporarily, with Ivan and their daughter Katya away in Ivan’s native Russia. But contemporary access to the new array of tech supports means that Mahoney can enlist Ivan’s support when things begin to get dangerously sticky.
Finally, almost all great detective fiction depends on the evocation of place, particularly the city, and Johnston’s Canberra, like Chandler’s Los Angeles or Rankin’s Edinburgh, is every bit as important as her Sandra Mahoney character. To risk a cliché, Australia’s young capital Canberra is a character, one that Johnston has made as alive and mysterious as the infinitely variable human beings who populate it. Canberra is 100 this year and among the many things to celebrate is the reissue of all three of the Mahoney novels in e-book format - once again keeping us up with the times.
We wish Sandra well in her new digital guise and hope many readers who haven’t met her before will now become acquainted with this very special, very Canberran maverick detective.