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)
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)
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.