Writing Between the Lines

Two chapters into the new novel and his detective goes missing…

In desperation, crime writer Drew Hackett heads to Italy only to find private detective Dexter Cathcart caught up in case of his own. Cathcart nurtures literary pretensions, too, and threatens to undermine Hackett’s control of the narrative. The detective wants murders, the writer wants none.

While Cathcart resumes the novel’s case of suspected fraud, Hackett finds himself drawn into the detective’s own mystery, involving the journal of a murdered Italian poet. Now both writer and detective are immersed in the intrigues of Italian politics, the one historical, the other, contemporary. While Hackett comes to understand the poet’s story, Cathcart feels cheated when he finally cracks his case. His hoped-for scandals and political murders have come to nothing. Seeking revenge, the detective inserts a murder of his own into the novel, blindsiding the writer. Who will claim the last word?

Writing Between the Lines explores the fragile relationship between writer and character, and probes the boundaries between what we ‘know’ as real and what we think is imagined.

✽ ✽ ✽

Extracts from chapters 1 & 4

There is just enough light to make out the lace curtain flapping against the window left open, enough light to realise it is no longer the middle of the night. Outside the burnt-out house, a teenager in a hoodie takes a selfie. A flag casts a shadow on the bare stucco wall. A man with a barrel chest and a tattoo of a rose asks for a light. Ants crawl across the pavement. A phone rings. It is no longer the middle of the night. Wake up! The phone stops ringing.

Drew Hackett rolls over, bunches the pillow up and pushes it from under his neck. He lies still, breathing. There is no other noise. Perhaps it’s the end of the world. He looks up at the ceiling. It doesn’t seem to be there. The phone rings again. Louder this time. Is it even six o’clock? Quarter to. A number he does not recognise.

‘Drew Hackett…’

‘I’m so glad I’ve caught you. I know it’s very early, but this is urgent. Dexter Cathcart has disappeared.’

‘What?…Who is this?’

‘Violet.’

‘Violet…?’

‘Violet Hughes! Dexter Cathcart has disappeared. You have to do something!’

Violet Hughes is on the phone telling you Dexter Cathcart has disappeared. Wake up!

‘What do you mean, “he’s disappeared”…? He’s gone to Italy.’

‘He’s disappeared in Italy! I phoned him as soon as he arrived, everything was fine. Now there’s no answer. When I rang the hotel in Vicenza, they told me he’d only slept in his room that first night. All his things are still there but he’s disappeared.’

‘Look, I’m not even up. I’m not really awake…’

‘You have to do something!’

‘Yes, yes, of course…I just need time to think…I’ll ring you back.’

‘Now. This morning.’

‘Okay, yes, this morning…But did you say “Vicenza”?’

‘Yes, Vicenza.’

‘Vicenza…I’ll ring you back.’

Drew Hackett drags himself out of bed, steps across to the bay window, looks out on the world. Everyone seems to have woken up now. He can hear a garbage truck shunting along the street and someone’s car radio. An impatient taxi pulls up outside number ten. An airport fare. Luggage tossed in the boot, a goodbye kiss from the dressing-gown wife. On her way back inside, she gets distracted by the solitary shrub in the front garden. Needs pruning, she thinks. 

What-the-fuck would Cathcart be doing in Vicenza? He’s gone to Verona. He’s in Verona. Violet Hughes doesn’t know what she talking about. Dexter Cathcart hasn’t disappeared, he’s on the case, he’s in Verona. That’s where the house burnt down, that’s where he’s gone to track down the mysterious executor, Rafaello Medicini. 

He powers on the desktop machine. Verona? Let’s make sure. He scrolls down through the opening chapters – the gallery opening, Cathcart’s meeting with Violet Hughes, Cathcart’s argument with Sofia, Cathcart musing on his collection of political ephemera…and there it is, end of chapter two – Verona. Cathcart arrives in Milan, wanders around the stazione, talks about Mussolini, then catches the train to…Verona.

For all the money and effort that went into the building, it is crowded, uncomfortably so at this hour. Queues of people outside the food stalls, masses staring at the screens, waiting for trains that haven’t arrived. There is hardly anywhere to sit, and nowhere, it seems, to relieve himself. He will have to hold on till on the train. The interval calls for exercise, anyway – walking around, taking photographs. He will send some to Sofia. ‘You could’ve been here, too’, they’ll say. For what it’s worth. He survives an hour like this, then thankfully the train for Verona arrives…

Verona. Violet Hughes rings and tells you that Dexter Cathcart has gone missing in Vicenza, but there’s nothing in Vicenza, no reason at all why he would be there, and there’s nothing to explain why the detective would suddenly “go missing” at the beginning of a case. At the end of chapter two, Dexter Cathcart is safely on the train to Verona, just as you thought. And that is the end of it. Except it isn’t. Even though he’s awake now, even though none of it makes sense.

✽ ✽ ✽

The writer can no longer pretend – Dexter Cathcart has gone missing. And it could even be worse. What if something really unpleasant has happened to him? He needs to talk to someone, which means he needs to talk to Danni. Problem is, Danni isn’t talking to him. Again. He will have to apologise. But for what? He thinks back over the week that’s gone…what was it this time? He didn’t take her suggestion of a holiday in Vietnam seriously? Probably that. He was a bit dismissive. “A package deal? Everything organised down to how often you can go for a pee? You can’t be serious, Danni!” Apologise, just apologise. She was serious, and there’s nothing wrong with a holiday in Vietnam.

‘Didn’t you get my email? I’m not talking to you.’

‘Look, I just wanted to say sorry…You know, they were really silly things that I said about going to Vietnam…’

‘Vietnam? What’s this got to do with Vietnam? You haven’t read my email!’

‘I haven’t had a chance to read it! Anyway…this is urgent.’

‘God! What have you done this time?’

I haven’t done anything, Danni. Why do you always assume that? It isn’t me, it’s Cathcart.’

‘Cathcart?’

‘He’s disappeared.’

‘What do you mean “he’s disappeared”?’

‘He’s disappeared. He’s gone missing.’

‘He can’t just “disappear”, Drew! Hasn’t he gone to Italy on that case?’

‘He’s disappeared in Italy. And another thing – he’s in Vicenza, he’s supposed to be in Verona.’

‘Mmmm…they both start with “V”…’

‘Meaning?’

‘Did you write “Verona” when you meant to write “Vicenza”?’

‘Danni, I do know the difference. No-one mentions Vicenza in the first two chapters, it’s all about Verona. There is no Vicenza!’

‘Well, you hear of people losing the plot, but losing your main character…that’s novel.’

‘I don’t understand it. He’s never done anything like this before. Why would he just disappear? It makes me think something must have happened to him. He can’t have started on the case, he’s only just arrived. And he’s in the wrong city. The whole narrative is supposed to begin quite predictably. He goes to Italy, he starts making enquiries, and it builds from there. All the fireworks come later. Cathcart doesn’t just go missing two chapters in.

‘Maybe he just got confused about where he was supposed to be staying?’

‘What?’

Maybe he’s been arrested for being drunk and disorderly and he’s languishing in an Italian jail?’

‘What?’

‘Excuse me, Drew, but didn’t I warn you? You start writing a whodunnit and you haven’t even sorted out the who or the it!’

✽ ✽ ✽

Dinner is a takeaway pizza consumed in his room, as his phone starts working again. Text messages arrive in a bunch sprint. Three from Violet Hughes pressuring for news, and two from Sofia, who has just remembered something important – Cathcart told her he was going to Verona. She hasn’t heard from him, his phone goes unanswered, she’s worried sick. But the text message the writer wants to receive doesn’t come – there’s no word from Dexter Cathcart. Nothing from Danni, either. That does not bode well, but he can’t think about that now, he has to deal with Cathcart’s notebook, the notebook that never used to exist.

What-the-fuck does Cathcart think he is doing keeping a notebook? And it isn’t just a notebook. A light grey buckram cover, deep-grey leather on the spine and the corners, warm white paper ruled with the faintest of blue lines. Stitched. Meant to last, this, meant for writing down your most important thoughts. He turns the opening pages with respect. There are no dates written, but the commentary is chronological, running in parallel with the novels. Cathcart expresses his opinions about other characters, makes observations on plot details, comments on the prose. It looks like he’s been writing something almost every week. Twenty pages in, there’s a whole series of entries on his past – comings and goings at the Australian Embassy, his life with Lotte Ebersheg in Vienna, and stories about their two children, now grown-up and living in England. Yes, they had kids!

In his commentary about the novels, Cathcart fancies himself the literary critic. On A Case of Mistaken Identity, he expresses his disappointment with the denouement. Too static, too neatly tied up, the surprise at the end rather predictable. A detective novel needs to end with a last minute twist that disorientates the reader and convinces her to go back and read it all again. He is happier with Ducks on the Wall, where he feels the detective’s wit is better showcased, but even so, he still gives a serve to the overly cerebral ending and elaborates at length on his other dislike, the absence of murders. My kingdom for a corpse! he cries out at one point.

So Rumours of a Past Affair, with its grisly decapitation, is his favourite. He likes everything about it – the settings, the plot, the pace of the writing. He thoroughly dislikes Driscoll, (as everyone does), but lauds the cleverness of having ex-Major General Simon Driscoll as the thoroughly bad person who turns out in the end to be entirely innocent of the crime. He adores the spectacular ending. It is as if after two lame endings, the writer has finally been set free to explore the outer realms of his imagination. You feel the academic in him is now banished from the page.

It’s getting late now, the tiny street outside his window has gone eerily silent. Drew Hackett struggles to stay awake. He should be in bed, but he keeps reading as if he knows what he is about to find. And there it is – the body-in-the-cellar. In the last section of the notebook, the plot for a novel, a detective novel. There are notes, character sketches and suggested plot-lines. Even a few scenes. It’s still in its early stages, but there’s already a synopsis, the detective knows just where he’s going.

When private investigator, Dexter Cathcart, sets off on the simple case of disputed paternity, he is not expecting to find the alleged father a day-old corpse. An accident, a suicide? The puncture marks on his arm suggest otherwise. Paternity is not the only issue as the victim’s journal reveals an intricate web of political associates and influence and the spectre of blackmail. When the one person who might hold the key to the investigation is found hanging in an abandoned warehouse, and the chief suspect is killed by a lethal iPhone, Cathcart realises that he is on the tail of the biggest criminal enterprise he has ever encountered. It takes all his ingenuity through this trail of blood and text to unravel the mystery as the case hurtles towards its spectacular finale.

Strange Turn of Events. That had been the working title for Ducks on the Wall. And the plagiarism doesn’t stop there. Hackett recognises the motifs, they’re his own, picked up from Rumours and A Case of Mistaken Identity – a series of leads to the false suspect, the crime that is not a crime, the sting in the tail that has a second sting following hard on its heels. Cathcart has pinched the lot. He’s even lifted an entire scene from Rumours – the laundry scene where they discover the decapitated head of the accountant spinning in the dryer. But the most flagrant plagiarism of all – the main character in Cathcart’s novel is Dexter Cathcart himself!

Were there hints about this before? There must’ve been. The writer missed them. Too pleased with his detective’s sangfroid, his gentle arrogance, his risk-taking, his idiosyncrasies to dig any deeper, to get even a little suspicious. He thinks back over the three Cathcart novels, but doesn’t need to go any further than the ending in Rumours of a Past Affair. Why didn’t he see it before? It’s obvious now. Dexter Cathcart hasn’t “gone missing”, Dexter Cathcart has gone rogue.

✽ ✽ ✽

© 2019-2021 Linzi Murrie All rights reserved.