It was impossible to be bored in his presence
Alan Carter, Candice Fox, Michael Heyward, Michael Robotham, David Whish-Wilson: We have asked some of his Australian peers to bid Farewell for us to Peter Temple, and Robert Wilson throws in a little anecdote too. The respect they all show for this truly great author is shared around the world. We also would like to point to John Harvey’s great essay from „Books to Die For“ about The Broken Shore which we published in 2016 at CrimeMag. Andrew Nette has republished the best interview ever with Peter Temple on his website Pulpcurry: „The novel is about making believe your world is real.“ Peter Temple could do that for us.
I feel a bit of a fraud writing about „Peter Temple & Me“ given that I never actually met him. But if anybody turned me on to the idea of aspiring to being a crime writer in Australia it would have to be Temple. I was living in Melbourne when I was introduced to his „Jack Irish“ novels and immediately recognising as very real the world he depicted. After reading Bad Debts I devoured whatever else was available at the time and then eagerly awaited the next. Temple’s Melbourne is, and was, grim and violent, corrupt, terrifying and often darkly funny. His hero Irish a damaged, deranged, do-gooder and his entourage of racing identities, lovers, footy mates, brought out the best and worst in him. Temple’s descriptions range from the notoriously terse to the often sadly and brilliantly poetic – I recall in particular a summary of life in small-town Tasmania and (paraphrased) the girls with their one last pretty summer before they would be consumed by kids, cigarettes, and booze. The Broken Shore and Truth of course conquered the world and took that pared-back Temple lyricism and whiplash dialogue right to the brink. Vale a master storyteller.
Alan Carter is published in Germany by Nautilus, his „Marlborough Man“ will sit with Suhrkamp.
I encountered Peter Temple’s work for the first time as a university student studying creative writing. I’d had a spate of bad Australian crime fiction that had led me through the glittering Sydney harbour more times than I cared to do again and had been turned off it – but Temple’s work showed me Australia in a totally new light (or rather, dark). His men are hard-nosed but sensitive, and his women are believable and intriguing. He was a true master of the genre and someone whole skill-level I really aspire to. I’m sad to say I never met him, because I think he could really tell a good yarn and we’d have had a grand time at a dingy Melbourne pub somewhere, I think.
Candice Fox just recently was in Germany for a book tour, her thrillers are published by Suhrkamp. At CrimeMag you can find her here.
In 1996, when he was about to turn 50, Peter Temple published Bad Debts, his first novel. He had by then lived in Australia for 11⁄2 decades, after leaving his native South Africa at the height of apartheid.
He had worked in journalism and academe in Sydney, Bathurst and Melbourne. In 1989, with his wife Anita Rose-Innes and their son Nicholas, he decamped to Ballarat, 90 minutes west of Melbourne, and there he stayed, inevitably with a poodle or two at his feet. He was a late starter. Could he write fiction worth the candle? He had spent just a few years in Melbourne. Could he bring it to life in a novel?
Here is the opening page of Bad Debts. It’s the first time we hear the voice of Jack Irish:
I found Edward Dollery, age forty-seven, defrocked accountant, big spender and dishonest person, living in a house rented in the name of Carol Pick. It was in a new brick-veneer suburb built on cow pasture east of the city, one of those strangely silent developments where the average age is twelve and you can feel the pressure of the mortgages on your skin.
Eddie Dollery’s skin wasn’t looking good. He’d cut himself several times shaving and each nick was wearing a little red-centred rosette of toilet paper. The rest of Eddie, short, bloated, was wearing yesterday’s superfine cotton business shirt, striped, and scarlet pyjama pants, silk. The overall effect was not fetching.
“Yes?” he said in the clipped tone of a man interrupted while on the line to Tokyo or Zurich or Milan. He had both hands behind his back, apparently holding up his pants.
“Marinara, right?” I said, pointing to a small piece of hardened food attached to the pocket of his shirt.
Eddie Dollery looked at my finger, and he looked in my eyes, and he knew. A small greyish probe of tongue came out to inspect his upper lip, disapproved and withdrew.
A reader might grow old hunting about for the equal of that final paragraph. All of Temple’s books are studded with diamonds cut like this. He wrote spare, audacious sentences that give shape to emotion, like poor Eddie Dollery’s fear, for which we hardly know whether to feel compassion or contempt. Pain, grief and melancholy stalk the streets of Temple’s fiction, but there isn’t a page without sly humour or where the language doesn’t gleam. His heroes — Jack Irish or Joe Cashin from The Broken Shore, damaged men, whom life has beaten to a pulp — never lose their dry wit.
When Jack Irish isn’t part of a scam at the track or planing aged walnut boards in Charlie Taub’s workshop, he listens to Mahler and breakfasts on anchovy toast, drinking tea from bone china. Some of Temple’s female readers discreetly inquired how it might be arranged for them to sleep with Jack Irish.
The Broken Shore and Truth were the last novels he published. When he delivered the manuscript of The Broken Shore in 2005, we knew we had something special. It made him famous and brought him the audience he deserved. It sold more than 100,000 copies in Australia and was published in more than 20 countries. It gave him the honour of being the first Australian to win Britain’s Gold Dagger, the hall of fame for the world’s greatest crime writers.
Truth was darker and sadder, a long masterly bass note about the futility of things. It won the Miles Franklin Award in 2010, the first crime novel to be awarded Australia’s most prestigious literary prize. Peter was astonished. He had already sent me a form guide describing each of the contenders as if they were horses at the barrier. He rated his own chances at 200/1: “Ancient country harness racer attempting new career. Should be a rule against this. No.”
He was the harshest critic of his writing. He loved complex plots and tortured himself trying to wrestle them into submission. “The f..king thing has about 15 strands,” he wrote to me about Truth. “I am like those Telstra men you see in holes by the roadside, except they look happy and they know what to do.” Editing him was like editing granite. He loathed it: “I have done all the corrections AND I DON’T WANT ANY MORE F..KING EDITING.”
He was curious and sceptical about everything. He gave the impression that he had networks of informers all over the place providing him with the inside story, an attribute he shared with Jack Irish. He had read everything. He was proud, shy, outrageously funny, a charismatic curmudgeon. He loved pushing relationships to their limits. “Michael: Are we breaking bread on Monday night or would you rather break my neck? Yours, Peter.” He could be disarmingly generous and completely ruthless. He often conducted contractual negotiations under the alias of Agent Orange, a fop and a snob with a nose for cash and overpriced alcohol: “If you are staying at Claridge’s, do join me for a beaker of Bollinger. If you aren’t, don’t.” It was impossible to be bored in his presence.
Peter could parse a sentence and a society. His poet’s ear gave us dialogue that is a brutal celebration of the way we speak. He heard us and saw us, our lies, our loves, our corruption and our kindness. He wrote about Melbourne from the inside out: its football, racetracks and shonky property developers. His novels will be required reading for historians of the city.
Writers are sometimes plainer than their books, but Peter’s conversation could light up a room. We will never hear his laughter again, or see that half-secret smile, and the world is a lesser place. It is a formidable achievement to write a novel that can stay in print for a decade. Peter wrote nine in 13 years. Each one got better.
They will outlast us. Farewell, Temple.
(Michael Heyward is the publisher of Text, the original home of Peter Temple’s novels.)
There are precious few writers who I refuse to read when I’m working on a novel. Peter Temple is one of them because I can’t stop myself being influenced by the taut sparseness and beauty of his prose or fall into the trap of trying to mimic him. Rather than inspiring me to write, Peter would depress me because I knew I could never be that good.
His death last week has left a huge hole Australian literature because he managed to hold up a mirror to urban and rural life, making readers laugh and cry at the foibles, aggression, love and obsessions of ordinary people thrust into extraordinary circumstances.
What made this even more remarkable is that Temple was born in South Africa and didn’t arrive on these shores, by way of Germany, until his early thirties. He brought an outsider’s view to Australia, while at the same time capturing the larrikin spirit and often destructive masculinity of Australian men.
The great Irish writers like Joyce, Beckett and Edna O’Brien, wrote about Ireland while living abroad, using distance to find clarity. Peter Temple wrote about Australia as a newcomer, bringing an astonishing eye for detail and a lyrebird’s ear for ‘voice’. He once observed that Aussie blokes bantering in a pub, calling each other names, and ‘taking the piss’ sound inherently aggressive to anyone listening who doesn’t know the culture.
‘Being adrift in strange places, I think you are more attuned to the sounds around you, particularly the speech patterns, which are quite distinctive. I continue to hear the uniqueness of the way people speak. I’m a student of it.’
Peter was a ruthless editor of his own work, often deleting thousands of words as he pared back his sentences and polished them like diamonds. Many international publishers found his books ‘too Australian’ and wanted to add a glossary, but Peter refused to change the dialogue or include a glossary to ‘pander to the Americans’. He wanted to capture the reality of Australia and wanted his characters to speak like people in the pubs of Fitzroy and Balmain.
His most loved creation was Jack Irish, a former criminal lawyer, turned debt collector, with a nose for trouble and a love for the horses. However, it wasn’t until The Broken Shore that Peter revealed the full breadth his talents. That novel picked up a slew of awards, including the UK Gold Dagger and an unexpected longlisting for the Miles Franklin in 2006. It should have won. Ultimately, he received the award in 2010 for Truth and in doing so shrugged off the literary snobbery that often regards genre writing as being a lesser form of literature.
Although enormously satisfying, I think winning the Miles Franklin created a burden of expectation for Peter, which added to his own high standards. When I last saw him, he said, ‘I envy you, Michael, because writing must still be fun.’
I wish Peter could have enjoyed it more. I wish he could have finished his last novel, The Light On The Hill. Most of all I wish he was still here for his wife Anita, his son Nicholas, his friends and his many readers.
All of Michael Robotham’s books are translated into German, he is published by Goldmann/ Randomhouse.
It’s not hard to imagine the excitement generated at Australian independent publisher Text in 1996 when Peter Temple’s first manuscript, which later became the novel Bad Debts, arrived through the door. Bad Debts was Temple’s first Jack Irish novel, followed by Black Tide (1999) Dead Point(2000) and White Dog (2003). These are the novels for which Temple is best known, due in part to their being televised in Australia as a stand-alone movie and mini-series, the latter starring a dishevelled Guy Pearce as the eponymous hero. The novels were lauded at the time and twenty years later remain popular – each deploying Temple’s characteristic wit but also his sharply observant eye. The narratives move seamlessly from affectionate set-piece scenes incorporating a cast of inner-city Melbourne characters to encounters with the villains of the Irish novels – the institutional players who misuse power to line their pockets or enhance their political reputations. A wisecracking PI taking down corrupt and dangerous politicos, preachers and businessmen? Yes, the form is familiar, but it is Temple’s voice and facility with language that makes the series distinctive and explains their enduring popularity.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that my favourite Australian movie is the 1971 production, Wake in Fright. The film was directed by Bulgarian-Canadian Ted Kotcheff, and there’s something of the outsider’s clear view in the film’s representation of the darker side of Australian culture and masculinity in the fictional mining town of Bundanyabba. Despite being South African born, Peter Temple has also been a similarly keen observer of Australian life, and it is these observations that add an extra layer of precision and pleasure to his crime fictions. In the Jack Irish novels at least, whether Temple was conscious of it or not, he was also building on a long and venerable Australian tradition that flourished in the 19C, long before it took root in the hard-boiled novels of 1920s/30s America – the tradition of the imperfect everyman protagonist who stands in opposition not only to the socially powerful and powerfully greedy, but also the forces of law and order, whose representatives are often mocked as incompetent and inflexible, but are also guilty of an even worse crime (in Australia, at least) – that of being humourless. Jack Irish is in this context a classic Australian crime fiction character, finding his way through the mazes of conflicting interests that seek to shut him down, reserving his respect and affection for those who, like him, are able to maintain their humour despite what life throws at them. If it’s true that it was the social conditions of poverty, oppression and oppressive bureaucracy of nineteenth century convict and gold-rush Australia that created the anti-authoritarian and satirical Australian sense of humour, these same national characteristics remain sharply and affectionately foregrounded in the footy pub banter and social interactions of the Jack Irish novels, merely updated to the 1990s and early noughties.
My favourite Temple fictions however are his stand-alone crime novels, namely An Iron Rose (1998) and Shooting Star (1999). While it was Temple’s final novels, The Broken Shore (2005) and Truth (2009) that secured his national and international reputation, with The Broken Shore being short-listed for the Miles Franklin Award (2006) and winning the Duncan Lawrie (Gold) Dagger Award in 2007, and Truth becoming the first Australian crime novel to win the Miles Franklin Award in 2010, it was in the first two novels that Temple applied a darker tone, utilising world-weary protagonists in the form of Mac Faraday (an ex-cop) and Frank Calder (an ex-soldier and hostage negotiator.) These two novels are also transitional texts in terms of Temple’s evolving technique, relying on the first person POV he applied in the four Jack Irish novels, but later discarded when writing The Broken Shore and Truth. And yet they are vastly different from the Jack Irish novels. Gone is the foregrounded humour and everyman narrator, replaced with a clear-eyed realism and a more precisely calibrated reading of Australian life, observed through the eyes of men who have seen everything, and for whom there are no surprises left. Temple’s characteristic wit remains ever-present, related largely by way of dialog (he is one of the best writers of Australian dialog I know), as is the pared back but always evocative prose, the taut narrative structure. These are crime novels in their DNA, but their distinctiveness is achieved from their being drawn from recognisable Australian life, rather than being influenced or inspired by other crime fiction texts or traditions. It is this that makes the novels thoroughly unique, at least for me. I haven’t read any other crime novels quite like them – written either in Australia or elsewhere in the world. The surplus of pleasure to be had in reading these two novels is due to the fact that they are, of course, wonderfully written crime novels, with something to admire on every page, but also because within them are highly acute readings of Australian class and masculinity. Take, for example, this passage chosen at random from An Iron Rose (p 19):
“Francis pushed his way past us and tried another matted and sodden avenue. A few metres in, he missed an overgrown step, fell forward and disappeared into a dank mass of vegetation. His shriek hung in the cold air, wild enough to send hundreds of birds thrumming skywards.
We all stopped. Stan began to roll a cigarette one-handed as we waited for Francis to emerge. ‘Hurt yourself?’ he said, no trace of sympathy in his voice, as the wet figure struggled upright, cursing.
‘Course I fucking hurt myself,’ Francis said, each word a small, distinct explosion. ‘Look at this shit on my trousers.’
‘On?’ Stan said. ‘We know there’s shitinyour trousers. What are we looking for here Frankie? Don’t have to hack my way with a bloody machete to see it’s a jungle.’
Francis was examining the slime on his palms, mouth pursed in disgust. ‘My clients want it restored,’ he said. ‘I was trying to show you the enormity of the task.’
‘Enormity? That’s not the word you want, Frankie,’ Stan said. He was a pedant about language. ‘Try enormousness. And if you want it bloody restored, what do you want it bloody restored to?’
‘I don’t know,’ Francis snarled. ‘Don’t fucking care. It’s former fucking glory. That’s your department.’
‘Francis Keany doesn’t know and doesn’t fucking care. You should put that on your business cards.’”
This passage has nothing to do with the plot of An Iron Rose, and none of its characters are significant, but the scene itself is classic Temple and is significant for the fact that it demonstrates, without beating the reader over the head, the implicit and explicit Australian working class mockery of those who get ahead of themselves, who put on airs and graces, in this case a former florist who’s conned his way into the garden design trade, even as his revulsion for dirt and slime indicates just how far from the ‘earth’ and his roots he’s journeyed.
A few pages later the economically rendered backstory of Mac Faraday is introduced, by mentioning that he’d grown up, like so many Australian children (and like myself) moving from country town to country town. Faraday is a quiet and stoical blacksmith who just wants to be left alone, and yet we sense that he has both iron in him and a strong pragmatic streak, born of hard experience, and here’s why (p 58):
“That’s the thing that I remember most clearly about the string of tiny towns that looked as if they’d been dumped on the site from the air. The fight in the first week. They trailed you after school like mongrels following a bitch on heat. Big boys, small boys, fat boys, thin boys, all aroused by the prospect of violence, strutting, jostling. You walked on, whole body tense, heart like a piston in your chest, feeling them getting closer, half-hearing the taunts through the noise of blood in your head. Then someone would try to trip you, usually a small one, over-excited, wide-eyed, flushed. Or a few would run past you, turn and block your path or dawdle along, finally stopping. That was the moment.
By the time I was twelve, I’d learned to short-circuit the process, stop, turn, issue the challenge, draw out some pale-eyed, mouth-breathing boy, spitty lips, hands too big for his wrists. You couldn’t win these fights. Some bigger boy always dragged you off if you got the upper hand. But what my father taught me is that you had to show the whole baying mob that you were a dangerous person, a person prepared to kick, bite, pull hair, tear ears, gouge eyes, squeeze testicles, anything. ‘Don’t worry about fair,’ he said. ‘Dangerous is what you want to be. Go mad. Nobody wants to fight a mad person. Nobody wants fingers stuck up his nose.’”
Bridging such image-rich material and rewarding characterisation in Shooting Star and An Iron Rose are plots that function as bleak observations of how political power and big business function in Australia to protect their own interests, but never in a way that diminishes the pleasure of the suspenseful narrative, the noir resolutions that see small acts of justice served within the political and social structures that remain unchanged, unaffected.
The way I see it, the writing of The Broken Shore and Truth represented a further evolution and refinement of Temple’s technique. Gone are the first person narratives, replaced by a third person POV. The Broken Shore carries some of the deep characterisation and poetic language of Shooting Star and An Iron Rose, but it is in Truth that the logic of Temple’s terse phrasing and clipped dialog seen throughout his career reaches its culmination. Whether it was this experimental aspect, worked to its most distilled and consistent form, which allowed the judges of Australia’s most significant literary prize to bestow the Miles Franklin Award upon Truth is unknown, although it seems likely. The tragedy is not only that the Australian writing community has lost a master crime writer, and that Temple’s family have lost a father and husband to a horrible disease, but that there has been no novel in the nine years since Truth was published. There is apparently an unfinished manuscript, called The Light on the Hill, with his family. Whether or not it will be published one day remains to be seen, but the title (which has political significance in Australia, delivered in a speech by our ex-train driver Labor prime minister Ben Chifley in 1949) might be regarded as a fitting description of the man himself, and his vital contribution to Australian crime fiction over the past few decades.
David Whish-Wilson’s Perth trilogy is published by Suhrkamp. Coming in August 2018: Die Gruben von Perth (Zero at the Bone).
I was due to do a panel with him at the Melbourne Book Festival some years ago. I read The Broken Shore on the flight over to Australia and was mightily impressed by it and was looking forward to meeting him. Then I was told the day before our gig that he’d fallen over and broken his foot or ankle and wouldn’t be able to attend. So I missed my chance. Great writer and not just a crime writer.
Robert Wilson is published in Germany by Goldmann/ Randomhouse.
Peter Temple’s Jack Irish Novels:
Bad Debts (1996; Vergessene Schuld, 2007)
Black Tide (1999; Spur ins Nichts, 2008))
Dead Point (2000; Die letzte Botschaft, 2009)
White Dog (2003, Totengedenken, 2010)
His other novels:
An Iron Rose (1998; Die Schuld vergangener Tage, 2016)
Shooting Star (1999; Shooting Star, 2008)
In The Evil Day aka Identiy Theory (2002; Tage des Bösen, 2012)
The Broken Shore (2005; Kalter August, 2005)
Truth (2009; Wahrheit, 20011)