Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Broken Shore, by Peter Temple

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007
357 pp.
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

Friday, September 17, 2010

Bad Boy, by Peter Robinson

William Morrow
341 pp.

First, my thanks to LibraryThing's early reviewer program and to Morrow for my copy of this book.

Don't do what I did and start this late at night -- you won't want to put it down.  It's that good. Although this book isn't really a whodunit, the tension begins to build very close to the beginning and doesn't let up.

 The 19th installment in Robinson's Alan Banks series, Bad Boy begins with the discovery of a gun.  Julia Doyle contacts the police to report that she's found a gun in her daughter Erin's room, and that she was hoping to speak to Inspector Banks (a long-time friend of the Doyle family), but he's away on vacation in the US.   His partner Annie Cabbot takes the case (gun laws are very strict in the UK)  but things quickly spiral out of control and lead to a major disaster.  Erin had just recently moved back home -- she had been living with Banks' daughter Tracy (who's now going by  "Francesca") until things started heating up between Tracy and Jaff, Erin's boyfriend. Tracy, who's going through a rough patch in her relationship with her dad and in her life in general, decides to let Jaff know that the police are trying to find out where Erin got the gun. She finds herself even more attracted to Jaff,  and offers to help him out by letting him stay in her Dad's cabin -- which turns out to be a really bad decision as the two become fugitives, first from Jaff's criminal connections and then the police.  When Banks returns home, there is no time to waste -- he must find Jaff and Tracy in a hurry to prevent the worst from happening.

I have to own up to only having read the first Inspector Banks novel, so I'm at kind of a disadvantage here as far as the development of the characters and of the series stories in general.  So the big question for me is whether or not I think Bad Boy could work as a standalone novel, and I'd have to say yes. Personally, I prefer series books in the order they're written, but I think in this one, there's enough of a buzz-through kind of history offered by Robinson that overcomes the need for having read the previous 18.  My only complaint:  I figured some of the ending earlier so I wasn't too surprised, but hey, if that's the worst of it all, I can easily overlook it. 

Overall, I thought Bad Boy was quite good -- a bit on the suspenseful side, with enough twists and turns along the way to keep the pages turning -- and I look forward to books 2-18 in the series.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Past Crimes Revealed: The Killer of Little Shepherds: A True Crime Story and the Birth of Forensic Science, by Douglas Starr

October 5, 2010
320 pp.

My thanks to Amazon Vine for sending this book prior to publication.

Set in 1890s France The Killer of Little Shepherds contains two simultaneously-told stories.  First, there's the account of Joseph Vacher, who roamed the countryside of France and left only gruesome death in his wake.  The second story is that of Alexandre Lacassagne, head of the department of legal medicine at the University of Lyon, who pioneered many forensic techniques in the areas of crime-scene and post-mortem analysis, and was what we would now call a criminal profiler. 

Starr begins his story with army Sergeant Joseph Vacher's full-on obsession with a young woman named Louise Barant, a housemaid. After only one dinner, Vacher proposed marriage, and then later told her that if she ever betrayed him, he would kill her. She tried to avoid him and put up every reasonable excuse for not seeing him, but it didn't help. On a four-month leave from the army, Vacher came after her, she refused him, and he shot both Louise and himself. Both survived, and Vacher was put into two different asylums for a total of ten months, then released. With really nowhere to go, Vacher became a vagabond.  As he wandered the countryside, he committed the most heinous crimes, with young shepherd boys and young women favorite targets.  Because he would wander from department to department, by the time the crimes were discovered, he would have been long gone, thus avoiding detection.

Starr then interweaves his account of Vacher with the story of Alexandre Lacassagne, who was a pioneer in the study of forensic methodologies, including criminal profiling. He also discusses others in the field of criminology including Alphonse Bertillon and Cesare Lombroso, and explains developments in science and psychology that aided in the advancements of legal medicine and crime detection. He also examines  the phenomenon of "vagabondage," noting the correlation between unemployment, the increase of people on the move, and the correlating upswing in crime.

Both strands of this book come together when Vacher is caught, imprisoned, and sent to trial, leading to some pretty major questions. For example, was Vacher insane at the time he killed, or was he perfectly rational? And what exactly legally constituted insanity?  Is there any way to know if insanity is based on physical causes? What type of punishment is suitable if a murderer is found to be insane? Many of these questions sparked international debates, but they also led to further developments in the field of psychology, which was growing rapidly, as was the gap between medical science and legal codes.  And when a person is known to be a "monster," even if he is insane, how can the legal system justify putting him in an asylum where, if he's crafty enough, he'd fake being well and be let out to kill all over again?

Starr expertly catches the era surrounding the crimes of Vacher and the work of Lacassagne and others. He acknowledges work being done in other countries around the same time period, such as Italy, the United States and Great Britain so as to broaden the scope of developments in the science of criminology.  He also examines other crimes as well as the limitations of the local rural police departments in the capture of criminals.

I got very caught up in Vacher's story, and I liked the book. The early efforts focused on forensics and criminal profiling are really interesting, and if you're into this kind of thing, you'll be richly rewarded. It's quite obvious that Starr put in immense amounts of original research in the production of this work.  The stories of Vacher's victims are also  lurid enough so that if you're not interested in the field of forensic study, you'll still find something in the book that will interest you.   I do think he could have done without the "postscript" chapter and gone right to the epilogue, but that's nit picky on my part. Overall, it's a good book that will keep you reading.