Writing Between the Lines

After three successes, Drew Hackett begins his fourth detective novel without the confidence he displayed in his early works. Two chapters in, his detective Dexter Cathcart disappears in Italy while pursuing a case of suspected fraud. Fearing for his novel’s survival, the writer heads to Vicenza to discover his missing character is caught up in a mystery of his own.

The detective harbours literary pretensions and has been keeping a journal of critical commentary on the writer’s detective stories. The two clash over the role of murders in the genre, before the writer gets his character back into the novel and onto the trail of evidence: a suspicious house fire, a fatal accident on a lonely road, political assassinations, the intrigues of Italian far-right politics, and the mysterious Medicini, who everyone has heard of but no-one seems to know.

Writing Between the Lines is a novel about a novel but it is full of other writing: detective stories, journals, a memoir, a fake will, a classic Italian novel, text messages and a stash of erotic letters. The writer does not write alone, but along with his detective, his lover, the detective’s client, the mysterious Medicini, an Italian libertino, a professor of literature, a famous novelist and a murdered Italian poet. In this novel, everyone is writing, and as if to crown this over-abundance of texts and writers, the novel ends in the beginning of another…

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Extracts from chapters 1, 2, 3 & 4

‘A month ago I received a letter from Italy informing me that an old friend of mine had left me a legacy in his will. It came as quite a shock. I hadn’t heard about his death, I hadn’t even known he’d been ill. He hadn’t left me any money, but rather an objet d’art. Priceless, probably.’

‘It was…?’

‘The letter did not say. But I can imagine what it was, knowing Claudio, something of considerable historical value. I wrote back to the executor. I wanted to know how Claudio had died, whether there had been some mishap, some tragedy. I wanted to know what was happening with his papers. He was a very educated man, Dexter, and I mean ‘educated’ in that rather old-world sense of the word. Claudio didn’t have a PhD, his education went well beyond that. The answer that came back from the executor was extraordinary. There had been a terrible disaster, he wrote. Before he had been able to distribute any of the estate to the beneficiaries, the house and everything in it had been destroyed! The house, Claudio’s collections, his papers, and whatever precious objet d’art he had left me — all gone up in flames! Nothing survived. I am offered monetary compensation once the insurance claims have been settled.’

‘You don’t believe this.’

‘How can I? It’s not credible. Suddenly the house burns down! Just like that! I write back, but I am more demanding this time. I want to see some verification, I want to know about the fire. How did it happen? Why was nothing saved? Why nothing at all…’


‘No answer. Not to that letter nor to the next one. So I search online but I cannot find anything about this person, there is no record of him at all.’ She opens one of the letters lying on the table. ‘Rafaello Medicini.’


‘A post office box in Verona.’

‘Rafaello Medicini.’ Odd, that name seems to ring a distant bell for Cathcart, he just can’t think from where at the moment.

‘Of course I wouldn’t expect to know this Medicini. He would be some friend of Claudio’s that I never met. But he is the executor. That often suggests a close relationship, doesn’t it?’

‘At least one of trust. Tell me about your old friend.’

‘Claudio Cattaneo was an extraordinary man, Dexter. He had inherited a lot of money, but it’s what you do with money that matters, not how much of it you have. Claudio was not one to waste it, no. He used that money to lead a life devoted almost entirely to pleasure. He was an expert at pleasure.’

‘Forgive me if I am being indiscreet, Violet, but what exactly was the nature of the relationship with your…friend?’

Violet bursts into laughter, and, without asking, takes the glass from Cathcart’s hand and expertly refills it. Suddenly he can see her as a young woman.

‘I am sure you have already guessed that, Dexter! Of course Claudio and I were lovers.’

‘The thought did cross my mind.’ Three times, at least. What else was a beautiful young woman doing with an older rich Italian? ‘It wouldn’t be unusual, Violet.’

‘Oh, there was nothing “usual” about my relationship with Claudio! Far from it! It was an affair of unrestrained sexual passion. I’ve never known it since, and I never expected to. I count myself incredibly fortunate to have experienced a lover like Claudio, the likes of which most women could not even begin to imagine. He took passion to another level! He was Adonis and Don Juan rolled into one! He knew everything, and he knew it to perfection!… But I’m embarrassing you, Dexter!’ And she laughs again, flirtatiously this time, which adds to his accumulating embarrassment.

‘Not at all,Violet. We are not a nun.’ He is anxious to change subject. ‘Did Claudio Cattaneo have enemies?’

‘For sure. Jealousy is a powerful emotion. There are so many small people in the world. First, they’re jealous of your wealth, then they’re jealous of the pleasure you take from life. There are also the men Claudio slighted, men whose wives ended up in his bed for their own brief moment of paradise. They probably all went back to their husbands afterwards, but he had made his point: their men were inferior. Would you ever forgive another man for that?’

‘To tell you the truth, it’s rather outside my direct experience. What did he die of?’

‘The letter didn’t say, but reading between the lines, I think perhaps he had a heart attack. That bit, at least, would come as no surprise, because that is how Claudio lived. If I cautioned him, he’d laugh. We will all wake up dead one day, he would say, but how many of us will have lived our lives to the full beforehand?’

‘Quite the philosopher.’

‘He wrote at length about life, about beauty, about desire, about politics. My Italian was never good enough to appreciate it, I’m sorry to say.’

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

‘This isn’t just about the objet d’art that I now won’t get, it’s much bigger than that. You see, Dexter, Claudio Cattaneo was an extremely important person in my young life…’

She pauses here, but Cathcart can’t tell whether she is holding back tears or information.

‘What am I saying?…That I couldn’t live with myself now, if I were to just stand by while this…this outrage is being perpetrated against his generosity, against his memory, and against, I suspect, the other beneficiaries of his will. Of course I would love to recover the antique that Claudio left me, highly valuable as it no doubt is…but it’s more than that. This executor is most likely stealing whole parts of the estate from the other rightful heirs, too.’

‘What are you suggesting…?’

‘I am suggesting that when Claudio Cattaneo’s house burnt down, it was already empty.’

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Dexter Cathcart collects his olive-green suitcase from the carousel at the Malpensa airport and heads out to the bus rank, already sorting through strategies to combat the inevitable jet-lag. Not falling asleep on the bus is the first one. He achieves this with some determination by trying to identity the languages and accents erupting around him. There’s an unhappy Scottish accent, an American one, (Bostonian, perhaps), the familiar staccato of clear-as-a-bell middle-class German, and then it is all blotted out by an Italian in the adjacent seat, frantically negotiating with someone on the phone. Sounds like his mother. It works, the cacophony prevents him from dozing off all the way to the city.

He remembers the stazione centrale in Milan from only one previous occasion, changing trains on his way to Zurich, after a diplomatic task that came to nothing. On entering the grand hall, the huge out-of-scale proportions of the building grab your attention; one is stopped in one’s tracks by the sheer preposterousness of it all. A product of fascism, the proportions ludicrous to the human scale, the pomposity of the faux-classical architecture in the true spirit of Mussolini theatrics: that jutting jaw and glassy eyes, the operatic costumes and staged speeches in the Piazza Venezia, the black-shirt marches. The comic opera dictator, par excellence. A buffoon? No, that would be seriously underestimating him.

For all the money and effort that went into the building, it is crowded, uncomfortably so at this hour. There is hardly anywhere to sit, and nowhere, it seems, to relieve oneself. He will have to hold 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. On time. His luck holds; the seat beside him is free. Time for the second strategy: ask yourself what you are going to do there. The case of the mysterious executor, of the gutted house of the deceased, of the priceless objet d’art and the rich aspiring politician. There is only one lead to go on so far, a post office box address in Verona. It’s not much, but it’s not nothing, either. Someone has to empty that post office box, and when they do, they will find a letter from a person they’ve never heard of, requesting a meeting, a person who will be there watching them read it, who will then follow them home. So that is the task for the journey, composing a clever letter to a possible truffatore. Cathcart opens his notepad and unscrews the silver top of the fountain pen as the Frecciargento pulls out of the station.

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There is just enough light to make out the lace curtain flapping against a window left open, enough light to know it’s no longer the middle of the night. Is it even six o’clock? Quarter to. Hackett lets the phone ring out but to no avail. It rings again immediately. Who…? It can’t be Danni. As of yesterday, she’s not talking to him. Again. He rolls over in bed, it’s not a number he knows.


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

At the mention of Cathcart, he recognises the voice. It’s Violet Hughes, the budding blonde politician. How did she get his number?

‘Sorry…what do you mean, he’s disappeared? He’s gone to Italy.’

‘Yes, he’s disappeared in Italy. I’ve been on the phone to him since he arrived. Then three days ago, no answer. Now the hotel in Vicenza tells me he hasn’t been in his room for days. Nothing’s been touched there. He has just dis-appeared.’

Bloody hell! Where did this come from? ‘Look, I’m not even up. I’m not really awake. I’ll have to ring you back.’

‘You have to do something!’

‘Of course, of course! I just need time to think. I’ll ring you back.’

‘This morning.’

‘Yeah, sure. Of course. This morning. But…did you say Vicenza?’

‘Yes, the Hotel Franceschini.’

‘Vicenza…I’ll ring you back.’

What-the-fuck is Cathcart doing in Vicenza? Forcibly awake now, Drew Hackett drags himself out of bed. Vicenza? He’s supposed to be in Verona! But straightaway it starts playing on his mind. Cathcart goes to Verona…doesn’t he? Suddenly, he’s not so sure. Of course, it’s Verona, that’s where the house burnt down, that’s where the mysterious executor is. That’s what you wrote, end of chapter two!

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Has Cathcart gone missing, or has something happened to him? And it could be both. He needs to talk to the hotel himself but he can’t do that until the evening. Italians are asleep in bed right now. In a sign of increasing desperation, he does the next best thing, (the next worst thing!): he rings Danni.

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

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

‘What have you done, now?’

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

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


‘Did you write “Verona” when you actually 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, Drew, if you can’t keep a hold on your characters…’

‘It’s not about me, Danni… I don’t understand it. He’s never done anything like this before. I can only assume that something must’ve happened to him…’

‘You know what, Drew? This is what happens when you start writing a whodunnit without a “who” or an “it”!’

The conversation doesn’t get much better afterwards, but he perseveres because he’s floundering now, torn between the dilemma of what to do and the necessity of responsibility. Then Danni finishes up with the one serious suggestion that has already started worming itself into his consciousness.

‘He might just turn up as if nothing’s happened…Otherwise you’ll have to go looking for him yourself.’

He smells trouble; he lets it pass. As bad as things are, they could still get worse.

Perhaps in Italy people must go missing from hotel rooms all the time. Mario on the desk doesn’t seem unduly worried, although he does acknowledge that a certain woman keeps ringing, a woman who speaks passable Italian and is rather anxious. Are they an item, Mario wonders. It’s fifteen minutes of probing (at international rates) before Hackett can find out what he wants to know: the details. It is true, yes, no-one has slept in the room for days. Each morning the housemaid goes up to make the bed, only to find the bed untouched. But she wonders whether other things in the room have been disturbed. Her instinct tells her someone could have been there, so she has placed one of her thick black hairs on the door-handle to test her suspicions.

It’s two days before Hackett can make up his mind. Two days, two sleepless nights, four fraught calls from Violet Hughes, four unanswered messages left on Cathcart’s phone, zero calls from Sofia, and two more remember-I’m-not-talking-to-you emails from Danni. The next time he rings the Hotel Franceschini in Vicenza, he books himself a room.

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He hunkers down for the afternoon, sitting at the little desk, looking down into the street. Vicenza, Italy. A culture of workers and shoppers, of shoppers and diners. He answers the text messages, takes his time with this, tries to be reassuring. Can he mollify Danni with the lie that he’ll only be away a week? No, she won’t believe him for a second. He sends it, anyway. He’ll think of something else later. There’s only so much he can deal with right now, and priority has to be Cathcart’s journal, the journal that never used to exist.

What-the-fuck does Cathcart think he is doing keeping a journal? Hackett spends the afternoon scanning the pages, trying to find out. The journal seems to be a comprehensive commentary that runs parallel with the novels. There are opinions about other characters, observations on plot details, comments on the prose, and, predictably, a subtle sort of gloating over his successes. There is so much in it, it is obvious that Cathcart must be writing something every week. There’s even a whole section on his past, on Lotte and their life together in Vienna, and stories from their two grown-up children who now live in England. (Yes, they had kids!) 

In his commentary about the novels, Cathcart plays the literary critic. On A Case of Mistaken Identity, he expresses his disappointment with the denouement. Too static, too neatly tied up. 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. Really? Can’t remember that being a convention. 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 writes at one point.

So Rumours of a Past Affair, with its grisly decapitation, is the 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. One feels the academic in him is now banished from the page. Really! You can admire the arrogance and wit, so typical of Cathcart, but the idea that the detective has the tools of literary criticism at his disposal is frankly delusional.

It is well into the afternoon when Hackett finds the ‘body-in-the-cellar’. Here, in the last section of the journal, is the plot for a novel. Unmistakable. Still in the form of notes, Cathcart sorts through ideas and plays around with options. Nothing much is resolved yet in the way of detail, but the detective knows just where he’s heading.

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 breathtaking ingenuity through this trail of blood and text to unravel the mystery as the case hurtles towards its spectacular finale.

It’s Cathcart: a plethora of murders, a spectacular finale, and the title, Strange Turn of Events, that had been the working title for Ducks on the Wall. Hackett recognises some of motifs, too, because they are 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 clues guaranteed to be mis-interpreted, and of course, the central character. Dexter Cathcart is writing a detective novel in which he is the main character! It’s unthinkable! No, it isn’t unthinkable, because right now Hackett is thinking the unthinkable: Dexter Cathcart hasn’t gone missing, Dexter Cathcart has gone rogue.

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