The Australian writer, Peter Temple, died on the 8th of March; he had been seriously ill for some little time. I first got to know Peter’s work through his Jack Irish novels and was fortunate enough to get to know him a little personally, initially meeting him at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival and then, later, in London, at the home of Sarah Lutyens, the agent who represented us both. Peter was, as someone recently suggested, one of the last great curmudgeons of our time, and great company, as long as, if his caustic ire was aimed in your direction, you were prepared to duck.
Peter’s last two books are, I believe, two of the best, if not the best, contemporary crime novels of this century. The Broken Shore, published in 2005, won the CWA Gold Dagger for Best Crime Novel. That was followed in 2009 by Truth, which was the first ever crime novel to win, in 2010, the prestigious Australian Miles Franklin Literary Award. They were the first pair in a planned loosely linked trilogy, the last of which will never now, all too sadly, appear.
After reading The Broken Shore, the novelist and journalist John Lanchester wrote …
Ever since I read The Broken Shore, I’ve been hopping up and down in anticipation of Peter Temple’s next book. The Broken Shore is a masterpiece, as good as any new novel I’ve read in the last ten years. I had a sneaking thought that it might prove impossible to follow; I’m delighted that Peter Temple has and I can’t wait to read Truth.
I felt the same and I have to confess that when I first got my hands on a proof copy of Truth and read it greedily, too much so, I was vaguely disappointed. It wasn’t as good as its predecessor, surely? Then I read it again and realised I was wrong. I had been wanting something the same and this was different; it was tighter, tauter; a trap for careless readers. Each sentence, each conversation, however brief, however truncated, holds meaning; the things unsaid, unexpressed, hold meaning. I’ve read it now at least half a dozen times and each time with pleasure and still a sense of another writer’s wonder: how does he DO this? How does he do this so bloody well? Peter, you cantankerous old bastard, you were just, bless you, too bloody good!
When John Connolly and Declan Burke asked me to contribute an essay to Books to Die For, in which 119 authors choose and write about their favourite crime novels, I jumped at the chance to write about The Broken Shore. This is how my piece ends …
… there is one further thing that, for this reader, anyway, resonates from the title: the echo of Robert Hughes’s 1987 account of the founding of Australia, The Fatal Shore. For this novel is not just expertly set in a particular country – a particular area of county, a particular place – permeated by generations of history; it shows both the shifts and virtual disintegration of some communities, and the rabid racial discrimination – shockingly outspoken in some instances here – that demonises the Aboriginal people as belonging to a feral underclass.
When it was published, I was happy to be quoted as saying: “Put simply, Temple is a master, and The Broken Shore is a masterful book.” Nothing, in the four or five times that I have since read it, has given me cause to change my mind.
What was it Raymond Chandler said about Dashiell Hammett? Something about him taking murder out of the Venetian vase and dropping it into the alley. No longer the candlestick in the library, but the sap to the back of the head going the wrong way up a dingy one-way street.
Real crimes committed by real people.
Chandler didn’t do a bad job of that himself.
Neither, closer to hand, did Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo with their ten books featuring the Swedish policeman Martin Beck; nor William McIlvanney in his brilliant and inspirational 1977 novel, Laidlaw, set in Glasgow.
Whether Temple has read McIlvanney or Sjowall and Wahloo, or whether he’s read George Pelecanos, say, or Walter Mosley, is neither here nor there. What is relevant is that they all utilize the crime novel in similar ways: telling a story, yes, and a story about people, some of whom you come to care about, care deeply, but also – more importantly? as importantly – they use it as a tool, a tool with which to open up and expose a small area of society for us to examine and understand.
“I am drawn to the sparse and the dry and to the idea that if you concentrate you can do powerful things with a few sticks and stones.”
Peter Temple’s own words. The Broken Shore is very powerful indeed.
Peter’s obituary in the Australian newspaper, The Age, ends …
When his Miles Franklin-winning novel Truth was published, British crime writer John Harvey told The Age that Temple used the crime novel to strip away layers of hypocrisy. ”Truth was a pretty apt title for one of Peter’s books,’’ he said. ”He has a knack of pinning down the day-to-day nature of people’s lives and laying bare their weaknesses and obsessions.’’
The whole business was about truth, Temple once told me, creating the illusion of truth.
”If there’s going to be truth in it, it’s about the emotional response, it’s not about the accuracy of the detail. It’s about the fact that it spoke to you.’’
Sadly for readers everywhere, Temple will speak no more truth.