Fiction – paperback; Quercus; 336 pages; 2007.
When I started reading Peter Temple’s much acclaimed The Broken Shore last summer I became so enamoured with his writing style that before I’d even reached the half-way mark I rushed out and bought Bad Debts. I could sense it was going to be the start of a beautiful romance. Unfortunately, life got in the way — along with a few dozen other books that beckoned me — and it took me eight months to eventually get around to reading Bad Debts. The wait, I think, was worth it.
This book is not dissimilar to The Broken Shore in that it features a damaged protagonist with a slightly dodgy past and a penchant for spirited women. But that’s probably where the similarities end.
The main difference is the writing style. Bad Debts, which was written almost ten years before The Broken Shore, certainly feels less polished, the language is tougher, the dialogue more choppy. And in the best tradition of hardboiled noir, the main character, washed-up lawyer Jack Irish, treads a very fine line between enforcing the law and breaking it. You’re never quite sure whether you should admire him or despise him.
But Irish is not all he seems. His wife was murdered by a disgruntled client and he has buried his pain in years of serious alcohol addiction. He’s also a habitual gambler and hangs out with a motley crew of horse racing men who make a living out of spotting rank outsiders and setting them up to win. He’s tough (as his work as a sometime debt collector and private investigator might suggest), very male (he loves Australian rules football, women and beer, not necessarily in that order), but he has a softer side too (in his spare time he learns cabinet making and he’s a bit of an amateur foodie).
Return of an old client
The book opens with Irish discovering a series of increasingly urgent voice messages on his answering machine. These have been left by a former client, Danny McKillop, urging him to meet in a pub car park because “I’m in deep shit”. Unfortunately, the messages are a few days old, so Irish has missed the meeting. He can’t place McKillop but when he later discovers that he’s been shot dead at the very time and place of the requested meeting, he doesn’t waste any time refreshing his memory. It turns out Irish defended McKillop when he was charged with the hit-and-run death of a young woman 10 years ago. He was found guilty, sentenced to prison and had only just been released.
The more Irish digs around, the more he begins to suspect that maybe McKillop has been set up. Joining forces with female journalist Linda Hillier — she later becomes his love interest — he manages to discover that the hit-and-run victim was a vocal campaigner against a proposed luxury residential development on an urban brownfield site. Was she silenced to allow the development to go ahead? Or is he joining dots that shouldn’t be joined?
What follows is an action-packed, fast-paced investigation that throws up a good mix of red herrings, Government cover ups and dodgy dealings. And despite a few too-odd-to-be-true incidents (involving guns, police chases and a few ethically questionable journalistic practises), I struggled to guess the ending, the sign of a well-plotted and carefully crafted storyline.
Of course as a former Melburnian it would be remiss of me to not point out the distinctly Melburnian feel of this book. I loved the references to particular suburbs and streets, football teams and racecourses, and quietly chuckled at all the Australian colloquialisms that might actually stump Northern Hemisphere readers.
Without a doubt Bad Debts is a highly charged, highly entertaining read, and a wonderful introduction to the Jack Irish trilogy. One down, only two more to go!