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PETER TEMPLE (1946 – 2018) . . . A tribute

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The distinguished Australian crime writer Peter Temple has died of cancer at the age of 71 at his home in the Victorian city of Ballarat. When some modern writers might have their output weighed rather than critically assessed, Temple wrote just nine novels and devoted much of his career to journalism – at which he excelled – and teaching others how to write. Nine novels only, but each is a gem – polished, hard, multi-faceted and brilliant. If he is known at all among casual readers of crime fiction in Britain, it may be for his four novels featuring the gritty private investigator, Jack Irish.

Irish, a former lawyer, inhabits an Australia which might surprise those who have never lived and worked in Melbourne. November through to March in the Victorian capital is pretty much the stereotype beloved of those who caricature Aussie life. It gets bloody hot, you don’t leave home without fly repellant and, across at the MCG, cricket fans, with the obligatory Eskies full of beer, are baying at the opposition players. But visit Melbourne between April and October, and you see a different city. The winter rain is usually an incessant but penetrative drizzle rather than a downpour and the wise supporter wraps up well to go and support his ‘footie’ team on a Saturday afternoon. The world of football – that strange hybrid we know as Aussie Rules – is one of the two contrapuntal themes in the Jack Irish novels, the other being the big business of horse racing. Whereas Jack Irish comes no closer to football than gloomy suburban pubs where old men rage against the dying of the light – and the current losing streak of their local team – his horse racing connections are far more potent. He has an uneasy relationship with a millionaire former jockey and the ruthless minder who looks after him, and his loyalty to the pair is sometimes repaid in cash but, on other occasions, with supportive but devastating violence.

The four Jack Irish novels are all in print, as follows:

Bad Debts (1996)
Black Tide (1999)
Dead Point (2000)
White Dog (2003)

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Never content to rest comfortably in the arms of a literary formula, Temple also wrote five other novels, each with a different protagonist, as follows:

An Iron Rose – featuring Mac Faraday (1998)
Shooting Star – featuring Frank Calder (1999)
In The Evil Day – featuring John Anselm (2002)
The Broken Shore – featuring Joe Cashin (2005)
Truth – featuring Steven Villani (2009)

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In The Evil Day is the only one of Temple’s works that has an international flavour. John Anselm is an ex-Beirut hostage who is eking out an existence working in surveillance in Hamburg, but becomes involved with a beautiful investigative journalist in London and an unscrupulous  mercenary. Messrs Faraday, Calder and Cashin, on the other hand,  ply their trade in deeply conservative country towns a couple of hours up the highway from the bright lights of Melbourne. Steven Villani, however, is back in Melbourne (which may seem more English than England, with its daily evensong at St Paul’s Cathedral, and its exclusive gentleman’s clubs) but there is nothing cosy or quaint about the corruption and venality that the hard-bitten police officer must confront.

Peter Temple was a fine journalist. Part of his training would have involved being cudgeled by hard-nosed editors into saying as much as possible in the fewest words. In his novels he added the imagination of a poet and the compassionate humility of a medieval saint. We have lost a writer who employed a style that was so terse and direct that it gave him the space and time for moments of such grace and perception that they take the breath away.

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MURDER IN MT MARTHA … Between the covers

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Some novels tread a well-worn path. The path is well-worn because it is safe, easy to follow, and will guarantee that the traveller arrives at his or her destination with the minimum of unnecessary effort. Crime fiction genres tend to operate like paths, with familiar landmarks and way points. Just occasionally a book comes along which jumps away from these genres and, in doing so, steps off the path and heads off into unknown territory.

jsMurder In Mt Martha is one such book. For those who have never visited Melbourne, Mount Martha is a town on the Mornington Peninsula, best known as what we Brits would call a seaside town. The ‘Mount’ is a shade over 500 ft, and is named after the wife of one of the early settlers. Author Janice Simpson (left)  has taken a real-life unsolved murder from the 1950s as one thread, and created another involving a present day post-grad student who is interviewing an old man about his early life in the post-war Victorian city. Simpson has woven the two threads together to create a fabric that shimmers, shocks and surprises.

Nick Szabo is a pleasantly feckless second-generation Australian, whose parents and grandparents were Hungarian. His source of anecdotes and atmosphere is the elderly Arthur Boyle. Arthur lives alone apart from his cat, and watches with a mixture of incomprehension and anger modern Melbourne streams past his window.

mimmSimpson keeps Szabo blissfully unaware that Arthur Boyle is a relative of Ern Kavanagh. Arthur only recalls him in fits and starts, believing that he was his uncle, but Simpson lets us into the secret as she describes Ern’s life over half a century earlier. The book opens with a graphic description of the brutal murder of an innocent teenager whose parents have reluctantly allowed her to travel alone to her first party. There is never any doubt in our minds that Ern Kavanagh killed the girl, but we are kept on a knife-edge of not knowing if he will get away with the murder.

I have to declare an interest and say that I lived and worked in Melbourne back in the day, and so the minutiae of suburban life, particularly the way people spoke, the obsession with horse-racing and, of course, the ‘footy’, struck a chord with me. I would like to think, however, that readers who have never been within a thousand miles of Australia will be convinced and drawn in by Simpson’s superb writing.

Aside from the murder mystery, there is a beguiling sub-plot involving Szabo, his determinedly Hungarian grandmother, and a visitor from Budapest who may be about to turn on its head their conception about their family tree. Again, history is embedded in the narrative. In 1956, when Melbourne hosted the Olympic Games, there was international turmoil when 48 Hungarian athletes chose not to return home. ‘Home’ was, of course, suffering under the brutal Soviet repression of a national uprising against communist rule.

The writing is beautifully nuanced throughout. The dialogue, whether it is contemporary or taking place in a suburban 1950s kitchen, zings with authenticity. This is not a long novel, being just short of 300 pages, but it is one that hooked me in very quickly, and I was genuinely sad to reach the end. That being said, there are few crime novels whose structure and substance allow them to be read through again at a later date, but I suspect that is one such novel.

Without, I hope, spoiling the conclusion to this remarkable book, it might be said that justice was eventually done, albeit in a roundabout sort of way. But then again, the last hanging in the state of Victoria was in 1967; depending on one’s views of capital punishment, a convincing argument could be therefore made that justice was not only blind, but bereft of its other senses too.

Murder in Mt Martha is already published and is available here.

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