Cyberspace and Canberra Crime Fiction

by Dorothy Johnston

© all rights reserved

When thinking about crime fiction and the kind I want to write, I keep coming back to Umberto Eco’s description of three types of labyrinth. First, Eco says in Reflections On The Name Of The Rose,there is the classic labyrinth of Theseus. Theseus enters the labyrinth, arrives at its centre, thanks to Ariadne’s thread, slays the Minotaur, then leaves. He does not get lost. Terror is born of the fact that you know there is a Minotaur, but you do not know what the Minotaur will do.

Then there is the mannerist maze. As Ariadne’s thread is unravelled and followed, the Theseus figure discovers, not a centre, but a kind of tree with many dead ends, many branches leading nowhere. There is an exit, but finding it is a complicated task.

Finally there is the net, which is so constructed that every path can be connected to every other one. This labyrinth has no centre and no one entry or exit. Cyberspace, where crimes using computers are committed, is clearly this third kind of labyrinth. The computer criminal, hacker, virus king etc. can be tracked, but the mode of tracking, of following the thread, soon corresponds to becoming lost in the maze, which indeed itself can become the Minotaur.

I find this space very appealing. Yet what also appeals to me imaginatively is the traditional structure of a crime investigation, the progression from a beginning to an end where the criminal is identified and caught. I like the tension that’s created by putting one inside the other, and I think this has something to do with having lived in Canberra for the past twenty years.

Crime fiction is my way of writing about Canberra. Canberra’s a terrific place for setting a detective novel, whether that novel also roams in cyberspace, as mine does, or not, because there’s so much crime, and so much temptation to commit it in our national capital. Canberra is a stratified city, and the lines between order and chaos – perhaps it would be better to say disorder and attempted order – are very clearly, very starkly drawn. There’s a lot of opportunity for white collar crime in particular, the temptation to act on greed and then the consequences of greed when it flies out of control.

Last year (1999), a man called David John Muir, who used to work in the Department of Finance, was charged with defrauding his department of 8.7 million dollars. He stole passwords and money electronically, and transferred about 6 million to several companies in Albury. These companies didn’t ask a single question about the sudden arrival of so much money. It was a miraculous gift from the Federal Government, and several of the companies are currently counter-suing the government for not looking after its money properly.

The Trojan Dog,published by Wakefield Press in March 2000, and the first in what I hope will be a crime series, (or at least a trilogy), is set in the lead up to the 1996 Federal election, in what was then called the Department of Industrial Relations. The Coalition, if it won, was threatening to scrap this whole department, so within it there was a particular, heightened paranoia at that time. In my novel, a woman called Rae Evans, who is my protagonist’s boss, is accused of stealing almost a million dollars in order to make a nest egg for herself, and there’s a private company desperate to make a killing before the change of government. Had I not written it before Muir’s escapade, I might have been tempted to have my thief pinching a lot more.

In my view, Canberra has a split personality. Canberrans are confronted by artifice writ large, by the deceptive artifice of symbols of political authority and social order which announce themselves plainly, for everyone to see. But everyone, equally, knows that they tell far from the whole story. The cracks in which mutations take place, as they do, as they must, in every society, and in every individual, look different on the surface in my home town – at least they do to me – and the search for them requires a different approach to the processes of concealment and disclosure.

A common-place of commentary on crime fiction is to stress the importance of place, with fictional investigators claiming their spaces in important psychological ways, as well as creating recognizably accurate underworlds beneath the surface of London or Chicago, Edinburgh or Sydney. Sydney crime fiction works best when it employs a kind of short-hand for its combination of Edenic physical beauty, lost innocence, and extreme and ugly danger. And PD James’s fascination with London is primarily a fascination with that city’s inexhaustible capacity for generating wickedness, overlaid by an increasingly fragmented Christian moral framework.

In another crime novel set in Canberra, Al Turello’s Wild Justice,gestures are made towards the city as a unique physical space, but I was struck by how superficial they are, and also by how traditional modes of confrontation and traditional boys’ adventure type heroes dominate the narrative.

A little way into it, a stranger to Canberra says, ‘You had to wonder about a city so seemingly pristine. Where did all the shit and garbage go?’ But the speaker tosses off this question, and Turello himself doesn’t seem interested in it, or in pondering the answers.

Canberra Gothic is its own sub-genre. I would like to find a way to do it justice. We have an imposing, impossible to ignore, castle on the hill, surrounded by a city of some 310,000 people often consciously struggling to define themselves against it. Remember this passage from near the beginning of Kafka’s masterpiece:

‘It was late in the evening when K. arrived. The village was deep in snow. The Castle hill was hidden, veiled in mist and darkness, nor was there even a glimmer of light to show that a castle was there. On the wooden bridge leading from the main road to the village K. stood for a long time gazing into the illusory emptiness above him.’ (The Castle, Franz Kafka)

Whether Canberrans arrive searching for an entry to our castle, perhaps believing entry is assured them, or live with their backs turned to it, its influence is pervasive. The fact that inland Australian light shines brightly on it, that it is seldom veiled in mist, makes it more,not less mysterious. Canberrans live in a day-to-day way, and cheek by jowl, with national monuments, with the symbolism of a supposedly benign and successful social order imposed not only on a landscape, but an imported population. The visual schemata of the city’s plan and grid lines are unsoftened by the light, which has an extraordinary, uncompromising clarity, like newblown glass. The light seems to promise truth, seems to suggest that nothing less than truth will be forthcoming. The light – and it contains a mystery that I do not think, however long I live here, I will ever fathom – looks as though it will, it must, illuminate truthfully everything that lies in its path.

Canberra is at the same time a composition of citizens, not Federal Government policies, which struggles against an overwhelming unpopularity.

Dostoevsky once called St Petersburg ‘the most abstract and pre-meditated city in the world.’ And while it is important not to make claims for Canberra which overstate the case, it is clearly, to my mind, the most abstract and pre-meditated city in Australia. As I walk up and down the streets and think about the lives that are lived on and around them, I cannot help but be struck by lines of light, just as I cannot help but be pre-occupied by the mutations that take place in the gaps or holes between them.

Crime investigators enact an imposition of order, almost always a successful imposition of order, on violence and cruelty. The clarity of the imposition, the clarity of the order/chaos dichotomy, has a correspondence, in my mind, to the visual patterning, the social patterning, of the city where I live – to its grid lines, light and dark, and to its obvious, and obviously flawed, symbolism.

And my eye is led – again it seems irresistibly – to the cracked, the mutant, the perverse. Perhaps this has something to do with the stated assumptions of democracy and open government on the one hand, and the knowledge that our genuine public spheres are continually shrinking. It is another form of perversity that citizens insist, doggedly, and in the face of the rapid shrinking of such spheres, on laying claim to, or attempting to re-create them, from below. The Aboriginal Tent Embassy is a good example of this, the way it insists on its status as an eyesore.

Cyberspace offers, alluringly, yet bursting with its own contradictions, a freedom from all cities, all geography. A multitude of cyberspaces offer freedom at the same time as they reproduce, with lightning speed, existing political, social and corporate divisions.

One of the freedoms held out most enticingly is the freedom to communicate. Is the allure greater to me personally because I live in Canberra? I feel that it is. I’ve watched the constriction and warping of public fora in Canberra for two decades. The role played by the building of, and move to, the New Parliament House has been significant. The New, (not so new now), Parliament House has no Kings’ Hall, no internal space approximating it. Kings’ Hall in the old Parliament House was a meeting place, a crossover space where, although control was obviously exerted, was still open to unplanned, unexpected activity, and to different kinds of interpretation. It was a space where politicians, staffers, journalists, (who inhabited rabbit warrens on one side of it), hadto pass one another in the course of their daily business.

Soon after moving to Canberra, in the late 1970s, I took part in a women’s refuges demonstration, a sit-in in Kings’ Hall, (over cuts to funding among other things), which did not involve more than a hundred women and children, who simply sat there on the floor and refused to move. No-one could walk through us. Everybody, including the Prime Minister, had to walk around us. It was a small demonstration, but a successful one, and its success was largely due to the architecture of the building where it took place.

The New House is so vast – paths never need cross in these ways – and of course it has been designed so that they should not. Political protest has moved outside, to the lawns and hillside, sometimes very effectively, but each demonstration needs to upstage itself exponentially, to be ever more ambitious and extravagant in its forms of theatre, taking on a kind of gigantism, (transport workers’ semi-trailers, seas of hands), in order to be seen at all.

It is the appeal of the small, the one-to-one, and from the bottom up,that cyberspace offers a person, a writer, like me. But cyberspace is at the same time a collection of spaces that have not, never have been, innocent. Frontier metaphors are often used to characterize them, and in doing so fundamental crimes such as the violent conquest of territory are referred to or implied. John Perry Barlow, net libertarian philosopher and the founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, has said of the Internet that, ‘Columbus was probably the last person to behold so much usable and unclaimed real estate.’

Such spaces, when thinking of them as settings for crime, can become a metaphor for the consciousness of the pursued, the pursuer, the victim, possibly all three. Or, since they also provide a realm for experimenting with what defines a fictional character, as well as a space in which crimes are committed and solved, a metaphor for where such a character’s boundaries may be placed. There can be a seemingly endless play between what is fictively posited as real and what is, again fictively, posited as virtual.

Of the writers I’ve read on the subject, it seems to me that William Gibson understands this best. Gibson creates what appear to be futuristic settings, yet claims the contrary:

‘I’m marketed as a science fiction writer, but what I really do is look at what passes for contemporary reality and select the bits that are most useful to me in terms of inducing cognitive dissonance. I have this fantasy that some day in the future I will be written about as a naturalistic author … somebody who was actually trying to take the pulse of the late 20th century.’

On-line a person’s consciousness is, or at least has the potential to be, split in many ways at once. A tension stretches along axes of embodiment and disembodiment. Gibson is one of many writers who repeatedly expresses the dual wish to leave the body behind when travelling in cyberspace, and to take it along for the ride. I discuss this tension and the contradictions it leads to in an essay titled ‘No Such Thing As A Bad Hair Day In Cyberspace’, in HEAT13.

Into all of this I have inserted an unlikely female sleuth. My protagonist, Sandra Mahoney doesn’t appear in The Trojan Dog as a fully fledged investigator. She has to learn to be one. She has an eight-year-old son and has returned to work as a public servant after a long absence that includes her mother’s death. I have given Sandra, partly as a reaction to the cerebral pull of cyber-detection, a weight of physicality, of domestic life that it not without its own complications – it’s not a simple weight, or a matter of light versus dark.

For part of the novel at least, what I wanted was to have the Canberra light shine on my every woman’s ordinary, messy life, and in turn to shine the light of that life,thoseexperiences, that sensibilityon Canberra, and on the business of investigating an electronic crime. Sandra’s personal life is not a background to her investigation, even though the investigation – and here I am following the stereotype – takes over her life for large parts of the novel. Her relationships are in a state of flux. Her marriage is ending. She takes up with one of her work colleagues, a Russian tech-head called Ivan, who teaches her to hack, who is her accomplice, lover, for part of the time one of her prime suspects.

My police detective character, Brook, has leukemia. Partly as a result of this, he forms a bond with Sandra and Ivan, a bond I plan to explore in subsequent books in the series.

Passion has a place in crime fiction, but not usually, or not historically, the mundane, or the kinds of intimacy that flow from daily life and insist on their own place within it. It is in opposition to the demands and responsibilities of ordinary life that many crime investigators stake out their professional, psychological and emotional territory. Though it seems to me that the ground here is shifting, and that there are a number of contemporary detectives increasingly attuned to the importance of relationships, families, or aspects of life which their profession would seem to leave no room for. Sara Paretsky’s VI Warshawski, though classically hard-boiled in may respects, is one of these, Laurie King’s Kate Martinelli another. Sandra Mahoney stands in opposition, (narrative, dramatic opposition), to the working out of a superficially orderly, abstract system of justice which has decreed that her boss, a woman for whom she feels an ambivalent loyalty, will be convicted, as charged, of theft and fraud; and to the forceof Canberra as pre-meditated abstraction, as transparent artifice. She is excited by the possibilities of cyberspace, both frightened and exhilarated by them, and she discovers how easy it is to get off on hacking.

Here’s a paragraph from a work-in-progress, the sequel to The Trojan Dog.

‘Who was it said that hacking was like sex? That night it felt like this was my particular discovery. Ivan and I had stepped once again into that limbo land of snoopers, and I knew now I’d want to come back every night, to send out my furtive melody along the wires, to see who tripped on my filaments of song.’

Predominantly, the form in which Sandra experiences the tension of investigating cybercrime is as a challenge – the challenge to step outside worn out habits of thinking and behaving. After an initial reluctance, she responds to the challenge to defend her boss when it becomes clear that no-one else is going to. She also responds to the challenge of open-endedness and insecurity which cyberspace presents, and realizes that it is, at least in part, a challenge to her imagination.

At a literary festival I once heard Jennifer Rowe, (author of the Verity Birdwood series, which I very much enjoy), comment that crime writers are good housekeepers. This may be true only in the sense that housework, like much of domestic life, is concerned with appearances, while murky untidiness may thrive underneath the surface. There is also the ritual order of evil. There are crime novels which tackle the assumption of closure directly, and refuse to provide it. There is knowledge that characters carry forward out of the novel’s frame, and their amnesia. If crime series’ characters knew what they were in for each time, why on earth would they continue? There is also the crime investigator who is nota good housekeeper (like my Sandra), yet does get her man in the end.

In the early days of the Internet, in the days before the Internet became a fast lane for the porn industry, a group of American feminist hackers built a program using naked women as a lure, and sent it around to a host of government departments. While the men were looking at the naked women, the program was busy stealing their files and passwords. It became known as one of the original Trojan Horse programs – and yes, Sandra learns to use one.

Now I don’t know if any of this is going to work, or how it will pan out in future books. No matter what happens though, I will at least write three. Like many novelists, I have a tendency to start something new before I’ve finished the project I’m supposed to be working on. I feel my imagination take that leap, it’s very exciting, and there’s the awareness that all my mistakes are ahead of me, (I haven’t made any of them yet), so the excitement is pure and compelling.

The third will be set in Canberra’s brothels. I feel somehow that this book has been waiting for me for fifteen years, and I’m coming to a spot on a circle and looking across at where I started. (My first novel was set in Melbourne massage parlour.)

Prostitution is legal in Canberra, but it is zoned light industrial, which means that it’s legal in the light industrial zones of Fyshwick, Hume and Mitchell and illegal everywhere else. Canberra has no heavy industry, no old manufacturing base, and there is a sharp urgency to create and then sustain one, the need for the city to become economically viable, since self-government arrived just over a decade ago, and the Federal Government stopped paying the bills. This leads to some quite peculiar situations and ethical elisions, such as the former ACT Chief Minister, Kate Carnell, posing for photographs outside various brothels when they have their open days.

One of Canberra’s best known brothels is called Club Goldfinger, and it’s situated on top of a discount tyre place in Mitchell. The large billboard at the front shows a beautiful woman all dressed in gold holding onto the Parliament House flag mast. She stands as proudly as a local statue of liberty. Underneath her, in crisp black lettering, is an advertisement for the tyre place, which says things like: four new tyres plus alignment $49.50, lube $39.95.

The debates over the legalisation of prostitution and the X-rated video industry, when they took place in the ACT Legislative Assembly, contained some wonderful linguistic contortions, while concepts like honour, dignity and what befits a national capital did battle with legal and economic pragmatism.

I’m going to end this essay with an extract from the new book, verymuch a work in progress, but it gives the flavour of what I’m trying to do. A politician, (I call him Eden Carmichael), has been found dead in a brothel, the voice is Sandra Mahoney’s and, though electronic crime isn’t mentioned, it, too, has a place in the story.

‘What did light industrial mean? Not a red light district, but far enough away from the places where Canberrans lived, and most Canberrans worked, to make getting there an act of will.

Prostitution was zoned light industrial and the zoning system seemed to work. Northside Studio, a brothel above the Ainslie shops, had been closed and moved to Fyshwick. Its advertisement in the yellow pages said Established Nineteen Years Same Management. More recently, a homosexual health studio above O’Connor shops. You stuck to Mitchell, Hume and Fyshwick, deserted after dark except for the cluster of sex traders, single line of ant cars towards honey or a corpse.

In the daytime, white wood that swelled in the January heat, hard lines of low-slung, cheap, no-nonsense buildings, right angles and thin walls built not to last, but to make money in between. In the daytime, Goldfinger’s street was like any commercial street in any country town, wide as our local rivers never were, a row of parched eucalypts, stamp-sized shadows underneath the awnings. The smell of raw pine furniture, ugly once you got it home, that deep quiet of a country town in the middle of a summer day when not much can happen out of doors, sheep and cattle resting behind fences, under the little shade that they can find, dogs panting at the ends of chains, and that inland homogenizing light, huge and filling every opening.

I squinted, but the lines of buildings stayed the same, regular and squat. This was the street Eden Carmichael had driven to, parked in, habitually crossed. This was where Goldfinger rubbed shoulders with affordable furniture and a wheel alignment place all credit cards accepted.

One kind of commerce might infect another. Though the families who came to buy synthetic carpets were not about to nip in for a quickie, the father might return later, after nightfall, in the station wagon with the back seat still sticky from mid-afternoon icy-poles, and a towel smelling of chlorine halfway underneath it.

The father might return and climb the stairs, if not that night then another. The mother might take note of the address, and the fact that behind Goldfinger’s doors were women fifteen years her junior, and think about the difference it would make to their budget, and how, if there was a gap in savings of such and such amount, she could never ask about it. The mother might think of this after the father had rung to say something had come up at work, while she washed up and got the kids to bed, and dreamt of a certain charmer, father of another family, belonging to another woman, dreamt of the olive crease between his nose and mouth, the way he smiled when they got into the lift together, on their way to work on different floors. She might fall asleep knowing there was a young man somewhere in the city whose body she could buy for twenty minutes if she had a mind to.’


Dorothy Johnston is a novelist and short-story writer, twice short-listed for the Miles Franklin Award (forRuth andOne For The Master ). She is also the author ofTunnel Vision, Maralinga My Love, andThe Trojan Dog. BothOne For The Master andThe Trojan Dog are published by Wakefield Press. Dorothy is president of the Canberra branch of PEN International, and a member of the 7 Writers group. This essay was funded by the Literature Fund of the Australia Council.

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