Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007
originally published 2005, Text Publishing Company, Australia
When I finished this novel I realized two things: first, that I'd just read something outstanding and second, that (as it says on the dustjacket blurb), Peter Temple is a "master writer." This has to be one of the best and most beautifully-written crime fiction novels I've ever read, and I can't wait to get back to his next novel, Truth, which I've only just started and am already loving.
Joe Cashin is a homicide detective who's recuperating from physical and emotional trauma in the small town of Port Monro on the south coast of Australia. Port Monro is not his normal beat; he's been posted there to put some distance between himself and the events that left another policeman dead and himself hospitalized. It's a perfect place for Joe; he spends a great deal of his time with his dogs, and to get his mind off of his recent troubles, he's rebuilding an old ruined house, as well as himself, with the help of a "swaggie" named Rebb. But his peace is shattered when he finds himself smack in the middle of an intriguing crime: one of the town's wealthiest citizens has been found dead and the police in charge of the investigation want very badly to pin the murder on three indigenous teens. Cashin is called to help with the case, but he's not convinced that the racially-prejudiced local police are correct in their assumptions.
What sets this novel apart, making it an outstanding read, is not so much the plot, which is believable and well executed, but the writing. The reader is plunged into an Australia that is divided over racial issues, plagued by corruption among government and local officials, divided between development that would create new jobs but would wreck the environment and the landscape. While a reader can perhaps find those sorts of problems in his or her own country, Temple keeps it Australian through his use of the local lingo (and then puts a glossary of Australian terms in the back for reference-- which is itself quite funny in parts), description of little things like food, and especially in terms of a sense of place. The small community's colorful characters and the small-town problems he's involved with ("a man about a neighbour's tree, the report of a vandalised bench...") set the stage, as do the vivid descriptions of the landscape. Take, for example, the description of Cromarty's Kettle, located in the Rip:
...the huge sea, the grey-green water skeined with foam, sliding, falling, surging, full of little peaks and breaks, hollows and rolls, the sense of unimaginable power beneath the surface, terrible forces that could lift you up and suck you down and spin you...the power of the surge would push you through the gap in the cliff and then it would slam you against the pocked walls...as well as the descriptions of the small pubs, truck stops, the "roads smeared with roadkill ---" or the road to Port Monro:
the "pocked junctions where one or two tilted houses stood against the wind and signs pointed to other desperate crossroads."The characters are also very well developed, especially Joe Cashin -- a broken and damaged, yet decent man trying to get it all back together, whose backstory and troubled past (including an unstable childhood) are unfolded little by little, interwoven with his present. He doesn't mind solitude, although perhaps not so completely as he would have you believe, and he's the consummate professional, yet willing to go with his intuition when the situation demands.
This is an excellent book, and although I've focused mainly on the writing here, the story itself will also keep you turning pages until it's over. And then, I think, you'll be left wanting more.
fiction from Australia