Saturday, March 27, 2010


By the time I was in high school, my parents had given up on their conviction that watching television would send us blind and fry our brains, kind of like masturbating for an earlier generation, and each week I couldn't wait for the next episode in David Janssen's classic series 'The Fugitive'.

The idea that a respected doctor could suddenly lose his reputation, let alone his marriage and his life, all because he was wrongly suspected of being his wife's killer, suited my teen sense of injustice perfectly. If only Dr Kimble could track down that one-armed man who was the real killer, he could prove his innocence. So each week as he chased the guy across the United States, the cops chased him. And one of the reasons I was allowed to delay doing my homework to watch 'The Fugitive' was that my dad was completely hooked, too. Apparently at his age you no longer had to worry about your eyesight or your brain.

As I read the first page of Gabrielle Lord's fantastic new series Conspiracy 365, I wondered immediately whether she'd been hooked on 'The Fugitive' as well - although, given our respective ages, she'd probably have had to peer over the edge of the bassinet to catch it. 'My name is Callum Ormond. I am fifteen and I am a hunted fugitive...'

This series is a really bold undertaking for Scholastic Australia, because the success of a series is in the long run about the size of your marketing budget. And they've obviously invested heavily. There's a great website, with teasers, there are competitions with 365 prizes and a guest book with postings that show how enthusiastically teens are responding to it. Here's the concept: one story, 12 books in 12 months - 365 days - one a month. That's a big idea for the Australian market and lots of marketing. Think about it: since the world's most successful consumer products, such as Coke, still cost their producers squillions in advertising, we must be a fickle lot and overloaded with choices if we need to be reminded constantly to buy a few of our supposedly favourite things.

So here's a publisher trying to sell a book a month for a whole year to teens, who are already bombarded with competing entertainments. It's the kind of bold idea that takes imagination and guts. Yes, the publisher, Andrew Berkhut, is a friend of mine - but I've got no reason to suck up to him. I don't need a job and I'm not looking for an opportunity to tell him about a manuscript of mine that's waiting under my chair for a break in the conversation.

In the Quaker tradition, there are no big conventional funerals, but when you've gone, there's a quiet hour when someone stands up and gives a testament to your life - with the inspiring, and funny and sad little anecdotes that make you feel the dead friend is still in the room. And every time after one of these testaments is over, someone says to me, 'I didn't know that about her!'

Well, I'm getting in early. I don't care if this little accolade seems improper: while they're alive we should tell our friends when they've done the right thing. (We have no trouble telling them when they don't!) Conspiracy 365 is Andrew Berkhut's inspired idea, and how smart he was to entice Gabrielle Lord to write it.

It's a massive risk for her, too. How do you invent enough plot to keep teens with you every month for a year? In the first book, January, a man in a dressing gown is being pursued by paramedics and just as they catch him and inject him into silence, he tells Callum that his life is in danger. Callum's father didn't die from some freak illness; he was murdered, because he had discovered a powerful secret buried in his family history and known as the Ormond Singularity. The thugs who murdered him know that he passed information on to Callum before he died, so now this fifteen-year-old is in their sights too. He has to go into hiding for exactly a year - or die.

Gabrielle Lord really packs on the pace in this story. I love the way she uses enough familiar names and details to make you think you know which city the series is set in, but you can never quite pin it down. One minute it feels like Sydney, then Melbourne, Brisbane - it's totally disorienting. And Callum is pursued not only through the urban space - cyberspace figures bigtime. I'm up to the end of April and he's narrowly escaped death on the underground train tracks - Sydney readers will relate to that! - been rammed by thugs in a pursuit vehicle at 200 kays and he's woken up in a white room, in a straitjacket and there's an unfamiliar name on the chart at the foot of the bed. His identity has been stolen.

Lord doesn't preach, but the string of ethical and moral choices Callum has to make on the run - involving life-and-death consequences for his little sister - will engage readers from sub-teens to adults. And here's the bit parents and teachers will want to know: many crime thrillers for young readers are simply not credible, because there are underworld places that young characters have no access to, and because the graphic violence and obscene language of the genre frighten the writers into self-censorship. Gabrielle Lord and her editors succeed brilliantly in making the whole world Callum finds himself in feel thoroughly dirty, without indulging in the kind of storytelling that would keep these books out of the school library.

I think about twice so far I've winced a bit skeptically at a turn in the plot, but the pace doesn't let you dwell on such moments for long - and anyway, it's a story, okay? There's certainly enough of everyday life to keep you going. I remember feeling relieved when I was a bit older than Callum and someone first said to me, 'Just because you think they're getting at you, doesn't mean that they're not!'

Conspiracy 365 will reassure teens who need to hear that line just as I did. Watch this series go! Right around the world and into the publishing record books. I can't wait for the rest of it, but I'm not sure that I want to know how the story ends.

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