Australia, Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Peter Temple, Publisher, Quercus, Setting

‘Truth’ by Peter Temple


Fiction – paperback; Quercus Publishing; 400 pages; 2010.

When I reviewed Peter Temple’s The Broken Shore in 2007 I described it as a “refreshing take on crime fiction, both in setting and style”. So when his follow-up to that novel, Truth, won the Miles Franklin Award in 2009 I wasn’t too caught up in the hype about it being the first crime novel to win such a prestigious literary prize. I suspected that it probably had strong literary leanings. I was right.

Two killings — are they linked?

Truth is set in Melbourne, Victoria, and focuses on two separate killings — the murder of a young woman in a luxury apartment block and the discovery of three mutilated drug dealers in a warehouse on the other side of the city — which may, or may not, be linked.

But this is not so much a crime novel but an exposé on corruption — of cops, of businessmen, of politicians.

And while it certainly shares characteristics with the detective genre, the book’s central focus is less on the gruesome killings that Inspector Stephen Villani, the head of homicide investigates, but more on the ways in which Villani copes with events happening in his personal and professional life.

Temple’s prose style is also hard to characterise. There are some chapters which move ahead chiefly through dialogue, and these are blunt and snappy, with everyone talking in a staccato rhythm. But elsewhere, when he describes the city or the bushfires raging in the state’s northwest, he’s rather lyrical and poetic.

A hot north-west wind on their faces, another blocking system was idling out in the southern ocean. Two long valleys ran from the north-west towards Selbourne, the main road down one of them. The fire would come as it came to Marysville and Kinglake on that February hell day, come with the terrible thunder of a million hooves, come rolling, flowing, as high as a twenty-storey building, throwing red-hot spears and fireballs hundreds of metres ahead, sucking air from trees, houses, people, animals, sucking air out of everything in the landscape, creating its own howling wind, getting hotter and hotter, a huge blacksmith’s reducing fire that melted humans and animals, detonated buildings, turned soft metals to flowing silver liquids and buckled steel.

Unrelentingly grim

But it has to be said that the story is unrelentingly grim. Villani’s worldview is bleak — he’s estranged from his wife but still living in the same house, he is having an affair with a political television journalist, his younger drug-addicted daughter is out on the streets, one of his brothers is about to be struck off as a doctor…

Then there’s the complicated relationship he has with his bullish father, a man who is now refusing to leave his property despite the imminent threat of bushfire.

The state of Villani’s personal life is only matched by his working life, which is also strained to breaking point. He doesn’t feel he’s earned the right to be head of homicide — and there are plenty of others in the force who feel the same way — so he’s constantly on guard, doing things under the radar or taking risks to get results.

Feels claustrophobic

All this means that the book feels claustrophobic — and depressing. I felt heavy-hearted whenever I picked it up and I was anxious to be rid of it.

Here’s but one example of the ugliness that permeates the narrative — this is a description of Melbourne:

Villani remembered when the CBD was still safe enough to walk across on a Friday night. But once the chemicals took over, spread into the suburbs, cops regularly began to see things once rare — teenagers bashing old people, women and children beaten, the punching and kicking and stabbing of neighbours, friends, cab drivers, people on trains, trams, buses, strangers at parties, in pubs and nightclubs, the hacking at people with swords, road-rage attacks, bricks hurled at trams, train drivers.

And 40 pages further, here’s what it’s like to be a police officer in that city:

In uniform, a full understanding of the job slowly dawned. A life spent dealing with the dishonest, the negligent, the deviant, the devious, the desperate, the cruel, the callous, the vicious, the drunk, the drugged, the temporarily deranged and permanently insane, the sick and sad, the sadists, sex maniacs, child molesters, flashers, exhibitionists, women-beaters, wife-beaters, child-beaters, self-mutilators, the homicidal, matricidal, patricidal, fratricidal, suicidal.

I think it’s fair to say that I appreciated Truth — particularly the banter between the cops and the examination of their human failings — but I didn’t like it. The novel was too dark, too edgy, too noirish for me. I found the crime investigation difficult to follow and the subsequent resolution slightly far-fetched. But I wouldn’t mind seeing the film when it finally gets released.

Australia, Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Peter Temple, Publisher, Quercus, Setting

‘Bad Debts’ by Peter Temple


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 halfway 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 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.

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!

Australia, Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Peter Temple, Publisher, Quercus, Setting

‘The Broken Shore’ by Peter Temple


Fiction – paperback; Quercus; 400 pages; 2007.

Crime novels set in modern day Australia are few and far between. In fact, I’ve never read one before. But then I heard lots of good things, mainly from British critics, about Peter Temple’s The Broken Shore and knew it was a book I had to track down.

I picked up a cheap copy from Waterstone’s earlier in the year and read it over the course of a dismal weekend in June. The book was absolutely enthralling in a way I could not put my finger on. And because I couldn’t quite work out what it was about the book that I loved so much I couldn’t muster the creative energy to write a review. I then gave the book to my father, who was about to embark on a long haul trip back to Australia, and kept telling myself I’d write about it … soon.

Well, two months later I’m finally composing this review-of-sorts. Since my reading of The Broken Shore, it has been awarded  the Duncan Lawrie Dagger (formerly the CWA Gold Dagger for Fiction) for 2007. Temple, who was born in South Africa, is the first Australian to win the award.

But while it might have scored a top-class prize for crime writing, I’m not entirely convinced that this book is a conventional crime novel. The first half is very heavy on scene setting and character development and there’s little in the way of detective work. But this is not a bad thing, because you get a real sense of what makes Joe Cashin — and the rural community in which he lives — tick. I enjoyed the slow sense of build-up, the careful exploration of Cashin’s current life interspersed with the occasional flashback of his troubled past. You get a real feel for the man: his decency, his pain, his professionalism and his solitary nature.

Temple also interweaves some interesting political and racial problems into the storyline without resorting to cliche, although the picture he paints of rural Australia (and its police force) isn’t exactly the one that the tourist brochures will want you to see.

The urgency of the plot picks up in the second half — and goes off in unexpected directions. I’m not sure it entirely works, as there were elements that I found slightly unbelievable, almost as if Temple was trying too hard, as if he wanted to shock the reader and bang them over the head with the sheer outrageousness of it all.

But as a whole The Broken Shore is a refreshing take on crime fiction, both in setting and style. Temple nails the melancholy nature of small town Australian life — it’s petty grievances, its politics, its sense of community — sprinkles a healthy dose of humour throughout and offers some brilliant dialogue that is so spot-on you can almost hear those flat, Australian accents reverberating off the page. In fact, this novel is such a realistic portrayal of my homeland I’m not ashamed to admit that it made me feel just a wee bit homesick in places…