Tumult and Conspiracy

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. Disputes 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.

Tumult and Conspiracy 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 & 4.

It is morning in the northern Italian town of Verona, a splendid morning, too. The central fountain’s robust spray sparkles in the morning sun, the high rose window of the cathedral glows. Dexter Cathcart strides across the Piazza dei Signori. There is a certain 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, and 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.

As Cathcart heads towards the stazione, 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. 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. It is still there. This is your last chance, Dexter Cathcart.

Should he? He was planning to buy the exquisite leather handbag for her until four days ago. That’s when his lovely Sofia suddenly ended their relationship. By text! No, he had not seen it coming, he’d been ignoring the signs. How she had been acting oddly – reluctant, querulous, distant, looking at him as if he were some strange other man. Why would she not come to Italy? 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 used to be? She’s got it off her chest, it’s done. Perhaps now she’ll be more relaxed about things, 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. In the window, the exquisite handbag calls out to him, She will love it! Yes, she will. He can see her with it on her lap, caressing the soft pink leather, marvelling at its elegance. And then his Sofia, overwhelmed with gratitude, will offer up her soft pink body. Cathcart deletes the message, pockets the phone, pushes open the door to the boutique.

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 are standing 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’. They point at him. They appear amused. They know he can see them. They don’t care. 

Just 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. 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 from behind a wardrobe of expensive woollen coats, as the two Italians hurry ahead in confusion, hunters who have 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. Snoring from within, gentle and sustained. Good. Cathcart is sleeping well. It used to be his once, the downstairs bedroom, after he moved into Ballindalloch with Great-Aunt Gertrude. There were four other bedrooms upstairs, but upstairs was her space, which she jealously guarded. The rare times he ventured up the stairs, he felt it necessary to call out, announcing his presence as he approached the perimeter of her realm. They would talk on the landing mostly. Occasionally, he was 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, 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 any ghastly modernising. She would never forgive him if he compromised the kitchen’s late Victorian spirit.

Six years after Great-Aunt Gertrude has 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, though, 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 putto 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 sleeps, and with any luck, sleep might continue for a while. Time for Hackett to shop for food, time 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. The windows weren’t left open, the garbage wasn’t left lying around, Poirot had not been neglected. Hackett silently apologises to her for having thought otherwise. He would like to ring her and apologise, but he can’t. Danni’s not talking to him. She had even been collecting the mail from his post office box and sorting it. Four piles were 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. He took it up to bed with him, but was asleep before he could open it. First night back was 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. He throws in their most expensive chocolate as comfort for Cathcart, notes what’s available in the deli. Breakfast is all he can shop for now, they will have to discuss the requirements for lunch and dinner. He hasn’t any clear ideas about the detective’s culinary preferences. That surprises him. Was Cathcart’s time in Vienna a big influence? You would have to think so, he was there for years, married into an Austrian family, yet schnitzel and beer don’t fit the 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, hair uncombed, in his pyjamas, still with that stomach-churning hospital aura about him. Bare feet. He will have to lend the detective some socks, if he can find any that are clean. This is going to be the hardest part, Drew Hackett. You keep on about having to put up with him, but actually, you have to look after him.

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Three days later, the jetlag fades, and Cathcart begins his rehabilitation. He will start after breakfast with a few leisurely circuits of the block under the watchful eye of the writer. Hackett lays out the 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 doctor laid down. The aim – to get the detective walking and driving again as soon as possible,  the other aim, to get Ballindalloch back for the sole use of 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 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! 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.

At Ballindalloch, plans for the day are suddenly out the window. The walk and the exercise regime is abandoned, because the writer and the detective can think of nothing else. Both of them wonder whether in the death of Camillieri, there are possibilities for 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, while the writer seeks the solace of his study upstairs. The breakfast dishes remain on the 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, and left him with the existential question – do you continue to write detective stories, Drew Hackett, 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 might be.

It isn’t as though he’s exhausted the genre, it’s the genre that’s 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! To Hackett, detective stories are what you write when you’re young, before you mature, before you move on to more serious writing. The great Camillieri defies that prescription. The Italian starts off writing serious historical novels, and then ends up – that is how he thinks of it – in detective fiction, and never lets go of it. Ninety-three. It doesn’t make sense.

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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Danni dumps the last of her boxes on the floor. Twelve boxes, three cases, a cardboard tube full of posters. The never-used back room won’t be the same. Too late now.

‘Three years we’ve known each other, Drew, and you’ve never bothered to show me around Ballindalloch. I think it’s time you did. Now that I’m moving in.’

Danni steps out of the back room into the hallway. Hands on hips. Drew hesitates. Keeping the house to himself is the way he preserves his relationship to it, the way he keeps the memory of her alive. 

Getting no response, Danni starts with the room adjacent to her own. She grabs at the door handle. It’s locked.  

‘Another room full of secrets?’  

He shrugs.

‘It’s locked, and given that you live on your own, Drew, who exactly are you keeping these secrets from?’

‘Myself. It’s locked so that I don’t go barging in there without thinking, Danni.’

‘Well, you can open it now, you’re free to go inside, you have a chaperone.’

He doesn’t move. ‘It’s her room. After she died, I moved all her things in there. Her clothes, her jewellery, her collection of vinyl. Boxes and boxes of old photographs. And her journals.’

‘Journals? The newly-appointed part-time archivist at the State Library is curious. ‘You never mentioned journals before.’

‘Well, she kept journals. She wrote almost everyday, she told me. About what was happening, about what she was thinking. They’re sort-of old-fashioned blogs, I suppose. She imagined some of it might even be published one day.’

‘What are they like?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘You haven’t read them?’

He shakes his head.

‘She’s been dead for six years, Drew. You’re a writer and you haven’t read her journals! I have to say, I am downright disappointed at your lack of curiosity.’

No, he hasn’t read them. He wants to, but he whenever he decides to start reading, something gets in the way. Somewhere in those journals lies the key to the mystery. How did “wonderfully eccentric Gertrude”, of modest income and meagre inheritance, end up owning fabulous Ballindalloch? Some mysteries are best left undisturbed.

‘I haven’t read them yet, Danni. You have to be in the right mood – to do justice to them. They’re historical, but they’ll also be deeply personal.’

They stare at each other for a full minute, the writer and the woman he is sometimes in love with. The writer blinks. He reaches up and removes the key from its hook above the door. He will need a new hiding place for it now. The key, hand-made and well-worn, turns in the lock with a sigh that suggests resignation. The room was perfectly contented locked. The door opens noiselessly. Inside, it is very, very dark.

‘We can have some light?’ 

Reluctantly, he opens the blind on the single window. The room stays dark.

‘Turn the light on, Drew!’

He flicks the light switch sparking the dim bulbs in the Art Deco fitting. It’s still dark, but light enough to realise that the darkness in the room emanates from the furniture. Three massive timber wardrobes and a substantial bookcase with glass panelled doors. A folded piece of cardboard jammed between the doors keeps them shut.

Danni takes a little time to adjust to the miserly light, then steps past the writer and opens one of the wardrobes. It’s packed. Thick coats, evening gowns, other clothing that’s not immediately recognisable, all squashed in together. A few have dusty plastic covers on them. Camphor. Six years the great-aunt’s been dead. It seems longer than that since anyone’s been in here. She reaches in for a pale-green jacket with russet-coloured fur trim. It looks ancient, and expensive. She holds it against herself.

‘I don’t rummage through her things, Danni. I just leave them. They’re like a memorial to her.’

‘I’m not “rummaging”, Drew, I’m just exploring. It’s natural curiosity. The desire to discover someone important, someone you have heard so much about but never met.’ 

He has come close behind her now. Breathing down her neck. Literally. She returns the jacket to its place on the rack.

‘Okay. I can always come back later. It’s the journals I’m most interested in, anyway. They will tell me who she was, what her life was really like.’

Drew shuts the wardrobe door, snibs the lock. At the bookcase, he takes the piece of stiff folded cardboard from the gap between the doors. The doors fall open. There are no books in this bookcase, just Great-Aunt Gertrude’s hand-written journals.

‘They can’t possibly all be hers! Can they?’

‘They are. She started the first one in 1938. She was still writing the week before she died. Seventy-six years…’

‘That-is-amazing!’

 Thousands of words, hundreds and hundreds of thousands of words. He finds that frightening, the idea that his great-aunt had so much to say. 

‘These should all be stored in archival sleeves, Drew. Leave it with me, I’ll look after it.’

The writer takes down the very first journal from the shelf. A buckram cover of faded green, deep-brown leather on the spine and the corners. The journal has kept remarkably well. Like its secrets. He is going to have to open it.

She is with them now, the great-aunt. He is aware of the faint odour of her perfume in the room, aware of that never-subtle clearing of her throat, aware of her long arm reaching out and staying his hand from opening the journal. There is something Great-Aunt Gertrude wants to say. The first entry in any journal is always terribly important, Drew. It’s like the naming of a new-born child. Something must have happened to make the writer want to write, something that could only be understood when put down in words. So when you read it, Drew, read it with that thought in mind.

Drew opens the journal.

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