A Word Before You Go

Wounded in the leg, his sense of self askew, private detective Dexter Cathcart returns to Australia to convalesce in the extraordinary Ballindalloch, the home of writer Drew Hackett. Dispute between them over the nature of detective stories is soon re-ignited by news of the death of Andrea Camillieri, the author of Montalbano. Cathcart is inspired to dream of a parallel Australian ‘trail of blood and text’ that would rival the Sicilian, while Hackett decides to pen a last detective story and then move on to more serious writing.

The detective’s new case begins innocently enough with the suspected forgery of an abstract expressionist painting, before it balloons into a case of fraud, deceit, art world rivalries and spectacular murders. Alerted to the writer’s intention to farewell both character and genre, the detective pursues the case with a determination to survive, while the writer searches for inspiration in the voluminous and disquieting journals of his late great-aunt, Gertrude.

A Word Before You Go is a novel about a novel but it is full of the possibility of other writing: detective stories, memoirs, novels, art histories and family exposés — possibilities that are seductive, yet threaten to overwhelm the increasingly fragile writer.

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Extracts from chapters 1, 3 & 5.

It is morning in the northern Italian town of Verona, a splendid morning, too. The sun sparkles on the central fountain’s robust spray and glows on the high rose windows of the cathedral. Dexter Cathcart walks purposely across the Piazza dei Signori. There is a jauntiness in his step; he is, once again, in his favourite part of Italy. But the detective cannot stay to enjoy this beautiful city, he has a train to catch, and there is a mysterious hand-written journal heavy in his suitcase. The politics of contemporary Italy are feeding on the turbulent politics of Europe between the wars; he has reason to believe that the journal provides a link between the two. One murder has already been commited in its name. He suspects there will be more.

The excitement of the case draws Cathcart on as he heads towards the stazione, and he is disinclined to acknowledge the Veronesi at their morning rituals in the piazza: the clerks heading to their offices, the friends at breakfast, the waiters hovering around tables. He does not notice the couple who are watching him intently: a man, short with a clipped black beard and a moustache on the point of curling; a woman, taller and younger, with blonde hair and unforgettably steel-blue eyes. They are quickly to their feet as he passes and disappear after him down the Via della Costa.

Through the Piazza Erbe the detective strides, each step proclaiming a firmness of intent. Here, the market is in full swing: brightly-coloured fabrics and food, trinkets and toys, all artfully arranged under the soft-white market umbrellas that hover like celestial clouds. But the intoxicating atmosphere of a busy Veronese morning tempts him only fleetingly until he turns down Via Cappello and finds himself once again outside the boutique Moschina. Yes, it is still there. This is your last chance, Dexter Cathcart, you are about to leave Verona, the opportunity will then be gone.

Should he? He was planning to buy this exquisite leather handbag for her until four days ago, when his lovely Sofia suddenly ended their relationship. By text. No, he hadn’t seen it coming, he had misread the warning signs. It was true, she had been acting oddly for some time; reluctant, querulous, distant, looking at him as if he were some ‘strange other man’. Why would she not come to Italy with him? Despite all his pleading and beguiling, she held out. A bundle of excuses and none of them credible. He pulls out his phone.

I have thought long and hard about this, Dexter. Your absence has given me the chance to reflect. I am bringing our relationship to a close. We will both be better off. Sofia

He hasn’t answered; he is tempted to ignore it. Why not return to Sydney and pretend that everything is just as it was? She’s got it off her chest, it’s done. Perhaps she might be more relaxed about things now. She might even consent to them moving in together. God knows, he’s suggested it often enough. A text message. Not a letter, not a phone call, a text message. Did he actually read this text message? Did it actually arrive? This is Italy, things go missing all the time. He deletes the message and pockets the phone. In the window, the exquisite handbag beckons. Yes, he can see Sofia caressing the soft rose-pink leather, he can see her so overwhelmed with gratitude, that, once again, she offers up her sweet body. 

Cathcart pushes open the door to the boutique, and that’s when he sees them, those two from the Fratelli d’Italia: the podgy Italian with his ridiculous moustache, the blonde woman with her piercing eyes. He pauses to examine their reflections in the half-open door. They stand there side-by-side, watching him. There’s nothing subtle about this, no attempt to conceal their presence, none of that ‘pretending to be shoppers’. These two murdered Bruno Scarpa. They point at him now; they appear amused. They know he can see them. They don’t care. 

For a moment Cathcart is back on the treacherous road from Crissi, his car screaming on the gravel, the Italians’ gunmetal grey Renault nudging his little Fiat towards the edge. It was a miracle he wasn’t killed that day. Bruno Scarpa had not been so lucky. Well, they had their chance and they couldn’t take it, he is not about to give them another. They’re on foot now, the advantage is all his.

Cathcart closes the door of the boutique calmly and steps back into the street. He walks at a steady pace as if nothing much matters, aware that in a few minutes he will come upon the narrow winding Piazzetta Serego and then, the chance to escape. Even better than this winding street is the delivery van he finds parked just around the corner, its back half-open. When his pursuers turn into the piazzetta, Dexter Cathcart is nowhere to be seen. He watches the two Italians from behind a wardrobe of expensive woollen coats as they hurry ahead in confusion, hunters who fear they have suddenly lost their prey. The sooner he gets out of Verona, the better.

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It is already past nine when the writer Drew Hackett tip-toes down the stairs and pauses outside the door to the spare bedroom. He can hear snoring from within, gentle and sustained. Good. Cathcart is sleeping well. The bedroom downstairs used to be his once, after he agreed to move into Ballindalloch with Great-Aunt Gertrude. There were four other bedrooms upstairs, but upstairs was her space, and jealously guarded. The few times he ventured there, he felt it necessary to call out on the stairs, announcing his presence as he approached the perimeter of her realm. They would talk on the landing mostly; only rarely was he invited into her room. The downstairs bedroom would have been more convenient for her as her mobility declined, but Great-Aunt Gertrude was never going to sleep in a bed other than her own, never going to sleep in a room other than the enormous front room with its shelves of books and records, its writing desk and oak table, its view towards Moore Park.

She had her own shower upstairs, a concession to modernity she made late in life, but the kitchen was still where it had always been and the journey down was fraught. She could climb the stairs with effort, but coming down her legs would no longer obey her commands as they once had, so it was easier to slide down on her still-ample bottom, step-by-bruising-step. She didn’t need to be in the kitchen, he was doing most of the cooking anyway, but the kitchen was precious to her in way that seemed to him, well…precious. She needed to be there, she would say, ‘to keep an eye on things’. Yes, to forestall any ideas he might have of perpetrating some ‘ghastly modernising’. She would never forgive him if he compromised the kitchen’s late Victorian spirit.

Years after Great-Aunt Gertrude serenely departed this world, Hackett keeps to his side of the bargain. Even though she is no longer there to check on him, he maintains the kitchen in its nineteenth-century state, all the while cursing its dysfunctionality. This morning, however, the morning after the flight back, he draws solace from it, from the familiarity of the chipped stone benches, the black range with it’s fire tongs and brushes, the ancient utensils hanging from the pot racks. Useless, yes, but welcoming. You are home! they call to him.

There is coffee in abundance but nothing else. No unopened packet of sweet biscuits in the old cupboard, no jars of fruit in syrup. All that’s left in the fridge is destined for the cat. Poirot has been well-cared-for, after all. He starts a list, ignoring the staples, concentrating on the immediate issue of breakfast. Breakfast for two. The invalid is still asleep. With any luck, this sleep might continue for a while yet, time enough for Hackett to shop for food; time enough to stuff his suitcase’s exhausted contents into the front-loader.

Despite her decision to fish in other waters, Danni had kept her promise to look after the house in his absence. The windows weren’t left open, the garbage wasn’t left lying around, and Poirot had not been neglected. Hackett silently apologises to her for having thought otherwise. He can’t ring to apologise; even when she ended the relationship she wasn’t talking to him. Amazingly, she had been collecting the mail from his post office box and sorting it. There were four piles stacked neatly on the hall-stand: flyers selling God-knows-what, business letters, bills, and personal correspondence. Just one that’s personal, actually, one from Danni herself. He took it up to bed with him last night, but couldn’t bring himself to open it. Not the right time. Now is not the right time, either. He can guess what’s in it.

Ten minutes from Ballindalloch the little independent supermarket supplies him with the morning necessities: cereal, milk, yoghurt, some under-ripe fruit, and he throws in their most expensive chocolate as comfort food for Cathcart. Breakfast is all he can think about for now; they will have to discuss the requirements for lunch and dinner. He has no clear idea of Cathcart’s culinary preferences, which is ridiculous. Were his years in Vienna a big influence? You would have to think so, he was there for years. Yet schnitzel and beer don’t fit the detective’s image at all.

He creeps back into Ballindalloch as silently as he can, but Cathcart is already awake and sitting at the dining room table. Jet-lagged, still in his pyjamas, still with that stomach-churning hospital aura about him. Bare feet. Hackett will have to lend the detective some socks, if he can find any that are clean. This is going to be the hardest part. You keep thinking about having to put up with him, but actually, you have to look after him.

‘Sleep well?’

‘I must have, I don’t remember a thing.’

‘You don’t have to do anything, you know. Sleep when you want to, eat when you want to, just focus on getting your strength back.’

‘I’m feeling better already.’

‘Good. Stay there. I’ll get breakfast.’

But Cathcart doesn’t stay there, he gets up immediately and pads after Hackett down the passageway into the Victorian kitchen.

‘I hope I am not being intrusive, Hackett, but I can’t help wondering how you came by this amazing house.’

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Three days later, the jetlag past, Cathcart begins his rehabilitation. After breakfast he will start with a few leisurely circuits of the block under the watchful eye of the writer. Hackett lays out the encouragement plan over their toasted muesli and under-ripe banana: walks in the morning and afternoon, rest in-between, strengthening exercises every other day. As the doctors ordered. The aim: to get the detective walking and driving again as soon as possible; the real aim, to get Ballindalloch back for the writer. They retreat to their phones over coffee, to be simultaneously stopped in their tracks by the news: Andrea Camillieri, the creator of the incomparable Salvo Montalbano, has passed away at the tender age of ninety-three.

One of Italy’s most popular authors, Camillieri wrote twenty-three novels starring his Sicilian detective, selling more than thirty million copies around the world…

Their familiarity with the famous Sicilian detective doesn’t extend to his creator, and now both stare perplexed at the image of this mountain of a man enveloped in a cloud of cigarette smoke. ‘And he made it to ninety-three!’ they both marvel. There will be no more Montalbano, no more endearing food-loving detective, no more squalid murders, no more the stench of corruption in the coastal village of Vigàta.

In Ballindalloch, plans for the day are suddenly out the window. The walk and the exercise regime is abandoned; the writer and the detective at the breakfast table can think of nothing else. Camillieri is dead! Montalbano is finished! Long live detective stories!

Both imagine that in the death of Camillieri, there will be clues to the resolution of their own situations. There is a plethora of articles to work through: orbituaries, the analyses of literary critics, interviews with writers and journalists, the laments of adoring fans. And there’s the image of the man himself, the face robust but softened with age, and that look — imperious is the word — as if the great man has cast his eye on the subject before him and found that subject wanting. After an hour or more, the detective retreats to the back garden with a copy of The Terracotta Dog; the writer seeks the solace of his study upstairs. The breakfast dishes remain on the dining table. 

It is bewildering to the writer, how Camilllieri, (whatever you might say of his genius), could write so many detective stories and still be writing them right up till his death at ninety-three. Hackett’s fourth contribution to the genre, Writing Between the Lines, almost did him in, leaving him with the existential question: do you continue to write detective stories, or do you give them away and move on to something more fruitful? The answer eludes him, as does the nature of what that ‘something more fruitful’ would be. It isn’t as though he has exhausted the genre, the genre is exhausting him. Working within it, but fighting a war with it at the same time. He doesn’t understand how the Sicilian could write detective stories into his nineties, even less understand how it was he that he didn’t start writing them until he was seventy! For Hackett, detetcive stories are what you write when young, before you mature, before you move on to more serious things. The great Camillieri defies that prescription.

What Hackett finds obvious and admirable in Camillieri’s work is the symbiosis between writer and detective. Camillieri and Montalbano are like brothers, sharing the pecularity of their Sicilian heritage, sharing a love of food, (and of cigarettes), sharing a love of literature. Those two are on the same side. So he can’t help but ponder the relationship with his own detective. What do he and Cathcart really share? The city of Sydney, yes, but Sydney is hardly a culturally specific coastal village in Sicily. It’s true that they share an understanding of foreign affairs, but Hackett’s understanding is academic while the detective’s comes from his considerable experience as a diplomat. Similar interests in European politics? Perhaps, though he can’t imagine himself with Cathcart’s passion for collecting European political ephemera from between the wars. They’re not polar opposites, the writer and the detective, but nor are they mates or brothers. What pushes them apart, though, is the very thing that should bring them together — the genre of detective fiction. They just cannot agree on it.

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Cathcart has never heard of a very famous boating tragedy. His ignorance suddenly requires some explanation. ‘You will have to forgive me, Robert, but those particular decades I spent working at the embassy in Vienna, married to a Viennese, and speaking a quite reasonable Austrian-accented German. I saw lots of Viennese architecture and Austrian art, but about the contemporary art scene in Australia, I knew nothing. Sadly, Sofia has not yet seen fit to enlighten me.’

The art historian is back at his desk, another folder, another document. He hands it to Cathcart. ‘The Sydney Morning Herald the following day.’

The front page: a photograph of a moored yacht, and a huge banner headline: Art world mourns five dead in boating tragedy. End of an era. Photographs of the young artists. Cathcart can’t help but note their period appearance; no-one looks like that anymore.

‘They were wild young men. Booze, drugs, parties, women — and art, of course. Going out for a midnight cruise on a yacht was just the sort of stupid thing they would do. Off they went, a storm came up, the yacht capsized. Despite an extensive search, the bodies were never recovered. I remember as a kid watching the saga unfold on television. For years I couldn’t look at a yacht without thinking about it, thinking what if?

Cathcart doesn’t know what to say, so he repeats the banner headline. ‘End of an era.’

‘It was the end of an era. Ironically, it made the job of the art historian a little easier. You can put an end date to that quite extraordinary period without fear of contradiction: February the twenty-third, nineteen seventy-four, the end of a tumultuous period. On the other hand, there’s no-one left to interview, no-one who can tell you what it was like from the inside.’

Cathcart kneels before the painting, as if somehow hoping to glean ‘what it was like from the inside’ from the daubs of bright paint. Except that this painting is suspect; they are talking of a possible forgery.

‘I thought that you might be able to tell a forgery just by looking very closely at it. I mean, those who know the work.’

‘Well, that’s true with some art work, the way the paint has been mixed, the colours, the brushwork, certain issues of composition. It doesn’t work with Abstract Expressionism, though. When I bought this, I was convinced: this is a Monty Dibbs. Uunquestionably. But now? A million dollar Monty Dibbs or a cheap fake? I honestly can’t tell you.’

‘Is there no other way that the artist could have got his hands on the pigment, Robert? Perhaps he knew someone in the automotive industry. Artists are always experimenting. And perhaps he imported the board into the country before it was actually available here. Isn’t that scenario a possibility?’ The detective, searching for explanations.

‘Well, perhaps there’s a faint chance that this is what happened. It would not have been out of character for Monty Dibbs to try things like that. But I can’t take that risk. You understand what an unmitigated disaster it would be if my book is crowned with a forged painting. I would be a laughing stock and the book would lose all credibility. The art historian who couldn’t tell a fake from the real thing!

‘What is it you want me to do, Robert?’

‘I have come to you, Dexter, because I cannot trust the professionals in the art world to keep it under their hat. There’s no shortage of enemies out there. For all of us. I can’t afford any of this — even just the suspicion that’s it’s a forgery — to get out.’

‘It will be safe with me.’

‘Right. Then I want you to do some sleuthing. Trace the painting. See if there’s any dubious connections somewhere in its past. It’s just one painting, but it has a history and we need to know about that history.’

‘You remember when you bought it, who you bought it off?’

‘Oh, yes, I have the letter of provenance. Everything was in order.’

The desk again, another drawer, another folder: the letter of provenance. Cathcart looks over it. Letters of provenance for political posters barely existed when he started collecting. You had to do your own work to guarantee authenticity. Or just hope.

‘Riley Shepherd.’

‘You won’t find a more reputable dealer for Monty Dibbs than Riley Shepherd. Dibbs was Riley’s uncle. He inherited Dibb’s estate and then he set about painstakingly authenticating Monty’s work. He’s done a remarkable job. Because it was chaos, typical of the way these men lived: poor record-keeping — or none — complete confusion as to what was painted when, and what became of the paintings afterwards. In their last few years, their gallery director tried to pull the four of them into line, but I don’t imagine he had much success.’

‘Sounds like easy prey for a forger.’

‘Exactly.’

‘Have you told the dealer about this?’

‘First thing. Riley was beside himself. He feels completely responsible. He authenticated it.’

‘Now he thinks it’s a forgery?’

‘Well, he hasn’t actually said that. He isn’t sure. But if it turns out that it is, he has promised to take it back. That’s the sort of person he is. And you can trust Riley to keep this a secret, his reputation is also at stake. You need to talk to him, Dexter, I think he’s your first port of call.’

A nod of the head is enough to signal Cathcart’s acceptance of the case. He can feel a certain energy returning now that there has something to get his teeth into, even something as modest as a forged painting. A possibly forged painting. And there’s something else, too — the undeniable pleasure of witnessing the pickle his romantic rival will be in if it all goes belly-up.

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