Writing Between the Lines

Two chapters into the new novel and his main character goes missing… Desperate, crime writer Mack Hannah 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 Dexter nurtures literary pretensions himself and threatens Mack’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 Dexter 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 it’s the writer who claims the last word.

Writing Between the Lines explores the volatile interdependence of a writer and his main 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 call go through to message.

Mack rolls onto his back, bunches up the pillow, pushes it under his neck. Silence, apart from his faint gasping breath. He looks up at the ceiling rose, eyes open but struggling to focus. The ceiling rose seems to expand, to threaten, to dissolve. He shuts his eyes, imagines sleep.

The phone rings again, louder this time. A number he does not recognise.

‘Mack Hannah.’

‘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 Hughes! 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 on the case.’

‘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.’

Mack Hannah drags himself out of bed, steps across to the bay window, looks out on the world. All of Sydney 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.

What the fuck would Cathcart be doing in Vicenza? He went to Verona. He’s in Verona. 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. 

Mack 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 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 wrote, and that’s the end of it.

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

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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. Beth 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… A couple Mack had never met before, waiting for him in the drinks tent – she with long grey hair and a black velvet choker, expertly holding her champagne glass by the stem, he with pony tail and tight leather waistcoat, passing an unlit cigarillo from hand to mouth and back again. While Cathcart worked wonderfully well, they told him, 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 even had plot lines they’d been working on – threesomes and foursomes, sex scenes in cars, and one at the scene of a murder. He suffered a whole ugly hour of this before the penny dropped – they were just turning each other on!

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”, Mack. 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, Mack!’

A sense of humility. That comment hit home, so Mack sat down to 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 Mack Hannah 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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