Writing Between the Lines

Two chapters into the new novel and his main character goes missing… Desperate, crime writer Drew Hackett flies to Italy to find private detective, Dexter Cathcart, caught up in a mystery of his own. The writer coerces him back into the novel, but Cathcart nurtures literary pretensions himself and threatens Hackett’s control of the plot. The detective wants murders, the writer wants none.

With his detective back on the case – the elusive executor of a will, a suspicious house fire, a ‘tell-all’ memoir and political intrigue – the writer becomes seduced by the detective’s own mystery around the journal of a murdered poet. He begins re-creating the doomed poet’s final year, but his attempt to have the journal translated threatens disaster.

When Cathcart finally cracks the case, he feels cheated. The promise of murders and political scandals has come to nothing more than a sordid dispute over a playboy’s erotic memoir. Seeking revenge, the detective inserts a murder of his own into the narrative but the writer claims the last word.

Writing Between the Lines explores the volatile interdependence of writer and character, and probes the boundaries between what we imagine is real and what we think is imagined.

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Extracts from Chapter One

There is just enough light to make out the lace curtain flapping against the half-open window, enough light to realise it is no longer the middle of the night. Is it even six o’clock? Quarter to. He lets the phone go through to message.

Drew Hackett rolls onto his back, bunches the pillow up and pushes it from under his neck. He lies still, breathing in gasps, there is no other noise. Perhaps it’s the end of the world. He tries to focus on the ceiling, it doesn’t seem quite there. The phone rings again, louder this time. 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. Do something!

‘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. 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 up. I’m not really awake…’

‘You have to do something!’

‘I’ll ring you back.’

‘Now. This morning.’

‘Okay, 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-gowned husband. On his way back inside, dressing gown gets distracted by the solitary shrub in the front garden. Needs pruning, he thinks. 

What-the-fuck would Cathcart be doing in Vicenza? He went to Verona. He’s in Verona. Violet Hughes doesn’t know what she’s 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, 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’s the end of it.

Except that it isn’t, even though he’s awake now, even though none of this makes sense.

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He can’t pretend any longer. Dexter Cathcart has gone missing. And it might even be worse. What if something really unpleasant has happened to him? The writer needs to talk to someone. Which means Danni.

Except that Danni isn’t talking to him. He will have to apologise, but for what? He thinks back over the week that’s gone. What was it this time? Her suggestion of a holiday in Vietnam? Yes, probably that. “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 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. Dexter 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 can’t start writing a whodunnit when you haven’t even sorted out the who or the it!’

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So the readers loved Cathcart in that first novel, and again in Ducks on the Wall. But after the success of the third novel, Rumours of a Past Affair, some of them started behaving like they owned him. The publisher, the new editor, Danni (of course) and those friends who never tire of offering advice even as their suggestions are ignored. Frank wants the foreign affairs angle played up – Cathcart investigating a criminal conspiracy involving a politically appointed ambassador – while Nathan fancies a postmodern Cathcart – the detective implicated in the very crime he’s investigating.

And then there was the ambush at the Byron Writers Festival! They were waiting for him in the drinks tent, she, expertly holding her champagne glass by the stem, he, passing an unlit cigarillo from hand to mouth and back again. While Cathcart worked wonderfully well, they said, certain things did not. They meant Sofia. They complained about her lack of deference, her arrogance in thinking the art world more important than anything else, how she was too young for Cathcart, and that, for all her physical desirability, she was “curiously rather sexless”.

They accused her of “suffocating the detective’s libido”, they demanded more of Cathcart in bed. They wanted him to be promiscuous, to take the sort of risks in the bedroom he did in his investigations. They had plot lines they’d been working on – threesomes and foursomes, sex scenes in cars, and another at the scene of a murder. It was a whole ugly hour before he could make his escape. 

Danni is pulling in the opposite direction, though she’s critical of Sofia, too. She wants Sofia to stand up to Cathcart, to assert herself. Their age difference really pisses her off. She finds it objectionable the way Cathcart is patronising to Sofia, even when he’s not.

‘But Cathcart is Cathcart, Danni, and Sofia is Sofia!’ the writer protests. ‘And that’s their relationship. That’s how it is. Not all relationships are equal.’

‘Nothing is just “how it is”, Drew. She should dump him. She should take up with someone her own age, someone with a contemporary understanding of gender relations. A painter, perhaps.’

‘That would mean writing Sofia out of the novels. Is that what you want?’

‘At least make her stand up to him. She could even change him, you know, give him a sense of humility. She needs some victories, Drew!’

“A sense of humility.” That comment hit home. Drew sat down and re-read the three novels. Cathcart doesn’t start off quite like this but by Rumours of a Past Affair, it’s obvious that success has gone to his head. Too sure of himself, too removed from the possibility of failure. It was time for a change.

What Cathcart needs is to be up against something he doesn’t quite understand, where his instincts are found wanting. At least for a while. It might be interesting to have Cathcart tricked by the false lead, to have him follow one of his inspired hunches that turns out to be wide of the mark. Perhaps he pursues the case with his usual forensic skills, only to come across the resolution purely by chance. Of course, he triumphs in the end, that’s the nature of detective stories, but marking out the journey with missteps along the way would rein in his tendency to hubris. Even when he solves the case, he might find he can’t explain everything, that bits of the puzzle are left hanging.

There are other ideas, too. What about Cathcart, the amateur sociologist, the fledgling philosopher? Rather than the usual mechanistic path of investigating, the detective might approach a case as much from the point of view of its meaning, elaborating on the context for the crime as he goes about the investigation. This is Cathcart, the intellectual, maintaining a certain sense of detachment from the sordid details of the villainy, while revealing to the reader his passion for understanding the depths of human nature.

Patsy, his new editor, is having none of it. ‘Don’t blow it,’ she warns. ‘You’ve written three successful novels, and your detective is a real hit. I wouldn’t change a thing.’

Don’t change a thing? Whose character is he, anyway? And then Drew Hackett begins Writing Between the Lines, sending Dexter Cathcart off in his beautiful blue Jaguar to the gallery opening in Byron Bay, with none of these issues resolved.

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