An Artful Conspiracy

Wounded in the leg, private detective Dexter Cathcart returns to Australia to convalesce in extraordinary Ballindalloch, the home of writer Mack Hannah. Disputes between them over the genre are re-ignited by the death of Montalbano’s creator, Andrea Camilleri. Dexter dreams of an Australian series to rival the Sicilian, while Mack decides to write one last detective story.

Danni moves in and their relationship shows new promise. Together they begin exploring the voluminous journals of Mack’s great-aunt, Gertrude, with a view towards publishing.

Dexter’s new case is a suspected forgery, the client, Sofia’s new lover. He discovers abstract art as the case balloons into one of bizarre art world lusts and rivalries and a spectacular murder. But on the verge of exposing a massive art conspiracy, the detective must perish in a sea of flames.

While searching through Gertrude’s journals for the passages they believe are part of an intended novel, Danni pressures Mack into saving his detective. Cathcart survives to witness the catastrophic finale, then brings the case to resolution with the discovery of the unlikely forger.

An Artful Conspiracy is a novel about writing, the second in a series exploring the interdependence of a writer and his main character.

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Extracts from chapters 1, 3 & 4.

He hears the shot ring out the instant he feels the pain in his leg. The suitcase lands innocuously, bouncing onto its side, and the detective follows, one hand clutching his brutalised thigh, the other clutching the Moschina handbag in its pink-pink wrapping.

‘No. There is no reason why a girl cannot have a gun, signore. Especially when she knows how to use it!’

She laughs a silvery laugh, the woman with the steel-blue eyes, returns the warm Beretta to her pocket, collects the suitcase off the ground and disappears, the military click-clack of her heels on the cobblestones fading to nothing in barely a minute.

A shot has been fired in the centre of a busy Italian city, but no-one comes running. No carabinieri, no shopkeepers, no excited crowd of onlookers gather around him, pointing and talking over the top of each other. Dexter Cathcart is alone in a deserted vicolo, alone with a few emptied oil tins, the remnants of a bathroom renovation and a pomegranate tree in a barrel-like pot. A ginger cat looks down from a tiny back window on the second floor, smiles a cat’s smile, then is gone. Better things to do. Dexter is alone and in pain, and worse – Gabriele Massimo’s original hand-written wartime journal has been stolen.

He knows what it feels like now. In Germany that time, the bullets missed. Shot after shot after shot – bullets ploughing into the rear of the car, bullets spitting past them on the road, any one of which could have shattered a window or burst through the front seat. ‘Head down!’ Ben Fischer was behind the wheel, in a pretence of control, while Dexter was doubled up in the passenger seat, trying to make himself as small as possible.

He stayed that way, even after the firing stopped – head in his lap as if he’d been hit, wondering if he actually had been hit – and he didn’t sit up again until they caught a red light on the outskirts of Munich. Someone had pursued them, someone had tried to kill them. Later, Lotte felt free to offer an explanation, coming up with Cold War stories she’d heard from her parents, but they never found out the truth. The Embassy hushed the whole thing up.

What is he going to tell Marianna? She has entrusted him with the journal, she has a right to know why it cost her husband his life. ‘You will know what to do with it, Dexter.’ He can’t forget that moment – leaving the farmhouse with the precious journal beside him on the front seat. ‘Buona fortuna!’ she calls out as he drives off. 

These two Italians want the journal so badly that they’re prepared to kill for it. But why? Perhaps its very existence is a threat to them, perhaps they intend to destroy it. No-one knows, because no-one who has ever read the journal lived long enough to tell the tale. But Dexter knows something about Italian politics, and he knows that if it’s in the interests of these neo-fascists to destroy Massimo’s journal, there will be others among them whose interests are best served by preserving it. Consoled by that possibility, Dexter Cathcart pulls out his phone and calls for an ambulance.

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On the third morning, they both agree – it’s time for the detective to begin his rehabilitation. They discuss the plan over their breakfast of toasted muesli and under-ripe banana. Walks in the morning and afternoon under the watchful eye of the writer, rest in-between, strengthening exercises every other day. The plan has Cathcart extending the regime little by little, until his strength has returned to its former state. Mack is anxious to get started as soon as breakfast is over.

They retreat to their phones over coffee, to be simultaneously stopped in their tracks by the news – Andrea Camilleri, the creator of the incomparable Salvo Montalbano, has passed away at the age of ninety-three. One of Italy’s most popular authors, Camilleri wrote twenty-three novels starring his Sicilian detective, selling more than thirty million copies around the world… 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. He made it to ninety-three.

Plans for the day are suddenly out the window. The walk and the exercise regime are abandoned, the writer and the detective can’t think about anything else. 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.

There is a plethora of material to work through – obituaries, the analyses of literary critics, interviews with writers and journalists, the laments of adoring fans. And they keep coming back to 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 whoever was before him and found that person wanting.

After an hour of online searching, the detective retreats to the back garden with a copy of The Terracotta Dog from Great-Aunt Gertrude’s library, while the writer seeks the solace of the study upstairs. The breakfast dishes are left on the table.

It is bewildering to the writer, how Camilleri – whatever you might say of his genius – could write so many detective stories and still be writing them right up till his death at the age of ninety-three. Writing Between the Lines, Mack’s last contribution to the genre, almost did him in, and left him with an existential question – do you continue to write detective stories, Mack Hannah, 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’s not as though he’s exhausted the genre, it’s that 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 he hadn’t started writing them until he was seventy! For Mack, detective stories are what you write when you’re young, before you mature, before you move on to serious writing. The great Camilleri defies that prescription. The Italian starts off writing serious historical novels, and then ends up – ‘ends up’ is how he wants to think of it – writing detective fiction. And he never lets go of it. Ninety-three. It doesn’t make sense.

What Mack finds obvious and admirable in Camilleri’s work is the symbiosis between writer and detective. Camilleri and Montalbano are like brothers, sharing the peculiarity of their Sicilian heritage, sharing a love of food, sharing a love of literature. Those two are on the same side. So he can’t help but ponder his relationship with his own detective. What do he and Cathcart share, really? Less and less with each novel is the truth.

They’re both from Sydney, but Sydney is hardly a culturally specific coastal village in Sicily. Both have an understanding of foreign affairs, but Mack’s’s knowledge is academic, while Cathcart’s understanding stems from his career as a diplomat. They might both seem to have an interest in European politics, but while Mack’s interest is the big picture, Cathcart has this passion for collecting political ephemera from between the wars. They are not polar opposites, the writer and the detective, but nor are they brothers. What pushes them apart, though, is the very thing that should bring them together – the genre of detective fiction. They simply cannot agree on it.

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

‘Three years we’ve known each other, Mack, and you’ve never bothered to give me a guided tour of 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. Mack hesitates. Keeping the house to himself is the way he preserves his relationship to it, the way he keeps the memory of Great-Aunt Gertrude 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 here on your own, Mack, 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.’

‘Great-Aunt Gertrude kept journals. She wrote almost everyday. 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, Mack. 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 whenever he decides to start reading them, something gets in the way. Somewhere in those journals lies the key to the real mystery of this house. 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 I’m sure they’re also 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, Mack!’

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, and there’s the unmistakeable odour of camphor. Six years the great-aunt’s been dead. It seems longer than that since anyone’s been in this wardrobe. 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”, Mack, 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 like.’

Mack 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 absolutely amazing…!’

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

‘These should all be stored in archival sleeves, Mack. 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, as have 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, Mack. 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, Mack, read it with that thought in mind.’

Mack opens the journal.

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