Not your average challenge this: "why not base a large part of your next crime fiction novel around the story of a disappearing camel". Then set it in a Victorian seaside town, with some tenuous connections to a murder victim discovered along the Murray. Luckily Dorothy Johnston seems to be made of stern stuff and great skill as she has taken this most unlikely scenario and created a page turner in THROUGH A CAMEL'S EYE that, frankly, was a standout read.
Introducing two new characters - local man, long-time cop Constable Chris Blackie; and blow-in from Melbourne, rookie recruit Anthea Merritt, this book is a brilliant combination of personal and professional, character and plot, menace and mundane. Blackie's love of gardening, and the restrained manner in which he lives a life seems unbearably limited to his big city rookie sidekick. Merritt, on the other hand, battling a doomed romance with a bloke who frankly comes across as an utter prat, feels that this move to the seaside is a necessary, but unwelcome step in a career that she intends pushing places. Driven and slightly snippy, she's instantly astounded by small-town policing. Be it Blackie's careful maintenance of the police station rose garden, through to the way that everybody knows everyone and everything, and the most mundane deserves attention, Merritt's the picky, easy to arouse one; Blackie's the quieter, sanguine one. In reality, neither of them are all that happy with the way that life is panning out.
Set in the real-life town of Queenscliff on the Bellarine Peninsula in southern Victoria, the sea is a constant throughout this novel. Whether it's the danger (Constable Blackie's father drowned in a pilot-boat accident), or the calm of the processional cargo ships moving through the channel to and from the major port in Melbourne. The setting reflects the two main character's own personality traits, and personal battles - calm, wild, windy, sunny - and it's elegantly presented as a comparison and a companion. It's that style of comparison, and controlled, almost understated style in the writing of THROUGH A CAMEL'S EYE that makes it immersion reading. Right down to the presentation of a missing camel as something that deserves proper investigation and a resolution. Even at the same time as a connection between the town and the discovery of a woman's body on the Murray - close to where she came from, unfurls into something that again, seems perfectly reasonable to investigate, and the only sensible approach to take. Even if the connection seems innocuous and unimportant to many.
The inclusion of Riza the camel works beautifully as a catalyst for reaction. You can feel the distress of Riza's trainer Julie, faced with the loss of her lifeline, and stabilising influence, to say nothing of the terror of what could have happened to her beloved animal. For Camilla, cut off by the inexplicable loss of her voice, the camel becomes an outward focus, something to rouse interest in a life that's been inward and timid for a long time. Add to that the reactions of the farmer whose paddock the camel was kept in, the young boys in the town who have their own involvement with the camel's welfare and you end up with not just a rallying point, but a reason to search for this animal that makes sense. It might make a young city cop think that small town policing is going to be underwhelming, but there's an issue of community as well as animal welfare here that Blackie knows is as important as working through the discovery of a dead woman's coat in the sand dunes.
Whilst some of the "who done it" is going to be easy to made educated guesses about, THROUGH THE CAMEL'S EYE really is exploring the why. Why somebody kills, why somebody steals, why sometimes ending up in the last place you thought you'd be happy, actually works for you. It's also very much about small town life, with all it's foibles annoyances and strengths. It's a character study, wrapped up in a police procedural, with a very strong sense of place, and, one would hope, a long-term future as a series.