Friday, 15 May 2015

The White Tower by Dorothy Johnston reviewed by Bill Kirton

Progressively, computer mysteries are establishing themselves as a powerful strand of the modern crime genre, but while Dorothy Johnston’s sleuth, Sandra Mahoney, and her partner Ivan have the necessary skills and expertise to hunt through servers, online identities and all those other esoteric things which are way beyond my comprehension, their actions and investigations are founded in a solid, tangible place peopled by very real characters.

The setting is the Australian capital which (at least for this northern hemisphere reader), added to the slight disorientation that threads through all good mysteries. Being reminded that spring arrives in October challenges one’s perceptions and increases receptivity to the sensation that all’s not right with the world.

Sandra’s quest is to find the truth behind the apparent suicide of Neil Howley. Neil worked in a hospital but spent many of his leisure hours online in a role-playing game. Johnston creates structures, hierarchies and circumstances in both his workplace and the game which reflect one another very cleverly; indeed his actual ‘suicide’ more or less coincides with the ‘execution’ of his character in the game. The master of the game destroyed Neil’s avatar because he thought he was trying to steal his source code while, in the real world, his superiors at the hospital had begun to mistrust him. All of which gives Johnston the chance to create two narrative layers between which Sandra moves, trying to separate ‘virtual’ motives from ‘real’ ones, interviewing real people but also the creators of avatars, teasing out the threads of two separate but eerily linked stories. Effectively, she’s pursuing parallel investigations which prove strikingly similar.

But in case this begins to sound fanciful, don’t worry, these characters are real. Johnston gives them distinct features and voices, her dialogue is as assured as her descriptive narrative. They all have secrets, resentments and other personal ‘truths’ that get in the way of the ‘truths’ she's seeking. And Sandra herself is far more than an investigator, she’s a partner and a mother. Not only that, she has a baby to feed, and Johnston even manages to use that special relationship to anchor her character even more firmly in the real world.

Immediacy is the watchword here. We’re forever in an intense present, each moment is filled. The double narrative dispenses with the need for sub-plots since they’re inherent in its structure. It's an intelligent, careful construction. Nothing is contrived, there are no clumsy clues or blatant red herrings; Sandra manages to unravel the mystery by her sensitivity to nuances and the application of reason.

And, all the time, there are the delicious little signs of a writer in control of her material. Johnston uses innocuous, seemingly irrelevant details to ground her narrative, the ‘little, true facts’ so beloved of Stendhal. At one point, Sandra ‘turned from the computer to stare out a window at a square of grass. A magpie hopped across it, dragging a tangled piece of string’. Neither the magpie, nor the string reappears. They’re there as a part of the incidental reality in which we all live. A skirt is the ‘colour of mustard that has been in the fridge too long’, some ducks ‘quacked appropriately’ – all delicate little touches that add to the pleasure of a very satisfying read.

The White Tower is one of a quartet of Sandra Mahoney mysteries. I’ll definitely be reading the others.