A locked labor of love

Janna Thompson's book released postumously recently.

In years to come there will probably be plenty of novels about living under lockdown but none quite like Lockdown by Janna Thompson from Clan Destine Press.

Janna Thompson, one of Australia’s most distinguished philosophers, was also a devoted fan of crime fiction and a long-time member of Sisters in Crime Australia. When the pandemic hit Melbourne in 2020, she was inspired to try to try her hand at crime writing.

The result is Lockdown (Clan Destine Press), a novel which explores how the invisibility of older women can provide the prefect cover for criminal investigations. No one would suspect that a retired philosophy professor, who is prone to wearing pastels, would be on the track of undercovering wrong doing.

Janna’s protagonist, quiet, unassuming Meg Thorne is practically invisible. But the retired philosophy professor has plenty of opinions – like, why do people dismiss little old ladies as harmless?

Meg and her two friends, the tough-as-nails Dorothy Arden and the boisterous Lila Gatti, have decided to be a ‘force for good’ with their Grey Ghosts Agency, because little old ladies can go undercover where other detectives can’t.

As Meg says, “Old people become invisible, especially older women. Even when we’re noticed, we’re usually regarded as inconsequential, harmless or a waste of time. Except for the Queen. I amused myself by thinking of expressions used to denigrate or patronise elderly women: crone, witch, spinster, old maid, chirpy old lady, woman of a certain age; and if she tried to look attractive, she was ‘mutton dressed as lamb’.”

The new case for Grey Ghosts is the infiltration of Sunnyvale Residential and Care Home in suburban Melbourne to learn why their client’s mother, Sara, is suddenly so afraid but won’t talk. It’s Meg’s job to check into Sunnyvale for ‘a short rest’ and uncover the truth.

Meg will have to confront her own fears of ageing while also investigating why Sara’s friend Jenny is being held in isolation, why an old enemy is popping up, what one of the other residents knows about the fate of Lila Gatti’s disabled son, and whether the other residents are truly prepared for Meg’s timely lecture on philosophy and responsibility.

Dangers lurk in Sunnyvale, but nobody counted on an unfolding global pandemic being one of them. Will Meg be able to leave with the truth, or will she be trapped in a lockdown with those who mean her harm? Will COVID be used to cover up murder?

Thompson put the finishing touches to Lockdown just before her death in June at the age of 79 from multiple brain tumours. She said at the time that she wanted a challenge to get her through Melbourne’s lockdowns.

“I’ve always loved crime fiction, the plots, the red herrings, and the adventures. I had things to say. The way that older women are rendered invisible and dismissed as insignificant might not be earth-shattering but I thought it fitted into the detective framework. I also wanted to bring philosophy into the novel, but in an unobtrusive way. No lectures on the meaning of life, the universe and everything!

“My sleuth Meg Thorne is a bit like me, someone who cared passionately about her students, though I’ve never worn pastels or been much of a one for skirts or frocks. Miss Marple proved an inspiration. I have had a bit of experience with nursing homes from visiting an old philosophy colleague.”

As a student in Minnesota, USA, Janna worked on the local paper and it taught her how to write direct and engaging prose. She had initially thought to train as a journalist but decided to throw her lot in with philosophy. After a stint at Manchester University, she migrated to Australia in 1970 and taught Monash University and then La Trobe University, where she became a professor. She published five books and gained an international reputation, particularly in the field of historical reparations. She also joined the Communist Party of Australia and remained a member until it dissolved in 1991.

An avid cyclist, canoeist, bush walker, cross-country skier, and swimmer. She once rode a camel across a desert in India. She died on 24 June 2022, only a few months after being diagnosed with multiple brain tumours. One of her last missions was to arrange for the publication of Lockdown. She never wore pastels.

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