I’ll admit it, it’s taken me a lot longer than I dreamed it would to read the nine novels of Australian crime-fiction great Peter Temple. When I announced the project back in September 2014, I figured a one-per-month pace would have me finishing just in time for Mystery Month 2015. But reviews of forthcoming books, and morning-and-weekend work on my own novels, blew that timeline to smithereens—I’ll be finishing a year later than planned.
I had thought that The Broken Shore (2007) was a gimme. After all, this magnificent novel was my introduction to Temple and got this whole thing started. Sure, I wanted to read it again, but, given time constraints, it seemed logical to let my starred review from the March 15, 2007, Booklist stand on its own.
Then I started reading Truth (2009), Temple’s final novel to date. I had thought it was a stand-alone, but the name of the protagonist, Stephen Villani, rang a bell. Then other familiar names started popping up and I realized that Truth takes place after The Broken Shore and was a supporting character in the latter. Nine years is a long time and I’d forgotten a lot of the details—I knew I’d have to reread The Broken Shore. And so I have. But does my original review hold up?
Prepublication reviews are written in haste and, sometimes, regretted at leisure. Working on tight deadlines, we don’t have the luxury of sitting with a book for a couple of months. We’re offering first impressions, not remembrance of reading pleasures past. So imagine me squinting as I read the following words, ready to wince at something I no longer agree with.
Thanks largely to Hollywood, Americans tend to picture Australians as genial, sunburned rednecks who enjoy beer, barbecue, and bare-knuckle brawling. Without countering all of those stereotypes—the only touching Temple’s men do is with their fists—The Broken Shore offers a cold-weather vision of the continent that, despite its rural setting, is more Ian Rankin than Crocodile Dundee. Melbourne homicide detective Joe Cashin has been temporarily assigned to his hometown, dinky Port Monro. Rehabilitating (with aspirin and whiskey, mostly) from injuries only slowly explained, he broods over family history and mistakes made. But when a local eminence is assaulted—and an attempt to detain the suspect goes fatally wrong—Cashin finds that small-town crimes offer complications worthy of the big city. Though the dense slang will be unfamiliar to U.S. readers (a glossary is provided), what’s striking is how easily South Australia anagrams to the American West. Substitute Indians for Aborigines, and land-use issues for land-use issues (Australia has lots of coastline, but waterfront property is waterfront property), and you have a familiarly troubling tale of race and class conflict—with an even darker crime at the heart of it all. Temple’s novel racked up the awards in Australia, and it’s easy to see why: this deeply intelligent thriller starts slowly, builds inexorably, and ends unforgettably.
Phew. Nailed it! (And I’m still pleased with the line, “the only touching Temple’s men do is with their fists”.) I think the only change I’d make now is that I might leave out the part about the parallels between South Australia and the American West. It’s true, but calling that out in such a short review perhaps gives readers a slightly wrong impression about what the book is like. When rereading, I wasn’t thinking about that.
I was thinking more about Temple’s gift for dialogue, for creating many levels of conflict, and for the way his complex plots are made easier to follow by the knack he has for writing about everyday exchanges between recognizable people. The sense of people struggling to do the right thing without being crushed by the gears of a larger machine makes this noir; the complicated relationships Cashin has with people (a drifter who does some work on his house, a lawyer who becomes his neighbor, his colleague Villani) make it a work of art.
I’ll write about Truth during this year’s Mystery Month. That book might be even better.