A Charismatic Curmudgeon
by Michael Heyward, Text Publishing, Melbourne
This autumn has a little publishing sensation: a book with quite some texts by Australian author Peter Temple who died last year. (CrimeMag’s Big Farewell here.) Peter Temple didn’t start publishing novels until he was fifty, but then he got cracking, writing nine of them in thirteen years. When he died, in March 2018, there was an unfinished Jack Irish novel in his drawer. This substantial fragment, entitled High Art, reveals a writer at the peak of his powers.
The Red Hand also includes the screenplay of the ABC telemovie Valentine’s Day, an improbably delightful tale about an ailing country football club, as well as stories, essays, autobiographical reflections, and a selection of Temple’s brilliant book reviews. What connects them all is his trademark wit, his ruthless intelligence, and his abiding love of his adopted homeland of Australia.
Peter Temple held crime writing up to the light and, with his poet’s ear and eye, made it his own incomparable thing. His work transcends all notions of genre: he remains a towering presence in contemporary Australian literature. This wonderful book pays tribute to all the achievements of the master.
Here is Michael Heyward, his Australian publisher, with an introduction:
When TRUTH was published, in 2009, it capped off an extraordinary decade and a half of writing for Peter Temple. His first novel, Bad Debts, had come out in 1996 when he was about to turn fifty. Peter had arrived in Australia in 1979, after leaving his native South Africa at the height of apartheid. He had worked in journalism and academia in Sydney, Bathurst and Melbourne. He was and remained in love with Australia. ‘I’m Australian by rebirth,’ he once said. In 1989, with his wife Anita Rose-Innes and their son Nicholas, he decamped to Ballarat, ninety minutes west of Melbourne, and there he stayed, inevitably with a poodle or two at his feet.
In the thirteen years after Bad Debts, Peter published nine novels and a range of stories. He wrote a screenplay, which was turned into the delightful telemovie Valentine’s Day. He turned out dozens of brilliant book reviews. By the time of his death, in March 2018, at the age of seventy-one, he was an internationally celebrated author, the first Australian to win the Gold Dagger in London, and the only crime writer to win the Miles Franklin. (His speech in this CrimeMag issue.)
He was a late starter. Could he write fiction worth the candle? Bad Debts was set in Melbourne where Peter had lived for just a few years. Could he bring it to life in a novel? Here is its opening page. 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 Peter 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 course through 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, wounded charmers— 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 if it might be arranged for them to sleep with Jack Irish.
Temple wrote four Jack Irish novels, and five standalone novels, including the international thriller In the Evil Day. It was The Broken Shore (2005) that made him famous and brought him the audience he deserved. It sold over 100,000 copies in Australia, and was published in more than twenty countries. Truth was darker and sadder, a long masterly bass note about the futility of things. When it won the Miles Franklin, 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.’
The Red Hand celebrates all these achievements: it includes a big chunk of an unfinished Jack Irish novel about an art scam, which we have called High Art, along with the best of his short fiction, some moving and entertaining reflections about his adopted country, a sample of his book reviews, especially of other crime writers, and the original screenplay of Valentine’s Day.
It doesn’t include any of his emails, but Temple was a master of the form. From the time that we began publishing him at Text, in 2003, every day was spiced with the possibility that Temple was likely to email us, possibly repeatedly. If he did, the day instantly became more entertaining, or terrifying, or both. He emailed when he needed something, when he was bored, when he wanted to annoy me or to make me laugh.
Like Jack Irish, Temple was a skilful debt collector. He had a gift for sending reminders about the folding stuff.
Dear M: Concerning the money, how long is ASAP? So far, it’s a week. Of course, the matter could be lost inside the large bureaucracy you now command. Exactly how big is the Text Accounts Department? Best, Peter
If that didn’t work, there were other equally inventive approaches:
Dear M: Please send me a test e-mail. Try to say something interesting (such as why your cheque hasn’t arrived). Best, Peter
And then there was the nuclear threat:
Dear M: We need to talk. Or would you prefer Orange? Best, Peter
I always preferred Agent Orange, a fop with a nose for cash and expensive booze who could never be reached on the phone and who inevitably emailed from a prone position on a superyacht moored somewhere off the coast of Mustique while being served margaritas by the improbably named Nurse Flagstaff. Orange was an unusual literary agent. He had only one client, and he liked to resolve matters, as he said, ‘at Sans Culotte over a few morsels and a bottle or two of a decent Romanée-Conti’. He was full of fabulous bullshit. He once chastised me for asking to read the new Peter Temple novel we were negotiating over:
My dear Michael: I must confess to be flabbergasted at your wish to see an actual manuscript. I have not seen an actual manuscript since I sold Scotty’s Tender Is the Night to Scribner’s. Complete waste of time, reading manuscripts. Yours, Orange
Nonetheless, Orange was certain his client was, as he claimed, ‘an authentic genius and more versatile than Mata Hari’. He was so much fun to talk to that I would string the negotiation out as long as possible, even when Orange was sulking, which he frequently did.
My dear Michael: I trust you will not be offended if I say that my client is beginning to wonder if you have any staff left, and, more importantly, any money. Yours in disappointment, Orange
For a man so languid, Orange was most alive to the fact that his author was in constant danger of being poached by rival publishers.
My dear Michael: As your intelligence service will no doubt have reported to you, Peter has been importuned by two publishers suggesting quote fresh starts unquote. One of these rascals had the impertinence to say that my client was a proven publishing harlot and the only matter for discussion was price…As always, we send our warmest salutations and look forward to a frank exchange of lies. Yours, Orange
But Orange was not entirely without principles. It would have been a breach of faith for him to accept an opening offer:
My dear Michael: You find me in the last minutes before the flight to Mustique. Here the leaves have lost their grip, the ice is in the air, and I feel a strong sense of the ending of days. I have put your offer to my client and, my word, didn’t we chuckle. I look forward to a much improved second proposal. For some reason, other publishers think a new Temple is worth more. Yours, Orange
And Orange disapproved of Temple negotiating directly with me, something we did by accident from time to time:
My dear Michael: My client informs me that he has committed the sin of speaking directly to you on matters contractual. The silly man is engaged in self-flagellation even as I dictate this to my amanuensis. I cannot, of course, accept your ludicrous offer…But now it is time for the dip off one’s beach, followed by the pre-prandial jug of gin and lime, the light repast of grilled manta ray, and the nap-nap. Yours in boundless admiration, Orange
After the deal was done, while Orange resumed his comatose condition, we could find other ways to entertain ourselves. When Stieg Larsson was selling squillions of copies, Peter and I wrote to each other for a while in fake Swedish. I asked him to write a novel in which a Swedish detective becomes lost in the Australian desert. I told him it would be an instant bestseller. Peter sent me the opening page of the novel I had commissioned:
The sun was staring from the sky like a monstrous eye when Lars crossed the burning sand to the vehicle. He could not meet the savage gaze of the dog on the back. It appeared to be a cross between a pitbull and an Irish wolfhound and was tied to the rollbar with rusty barbed wire. It was chewing on the leg of a kangaroo. The kangaroo was making small sounds.
‘Where ya flamin goin, ya bastard?’ said the driver. He was a huge man, wearing only a Speedo bathing costume. His entire body except for his head was covered with brown hair like coir. On his upper lip was tattooed F U C K.
‘Darwin,’ said Lars. ‘I am going across the great Aussie outback to Darwin.’
‘Fucken Darwin,’ said the man. ‘Fuck all in fucken Darwin, mate. Where ya fucken from, ya bastard?’
‘I am from Sweden,’ said Lars. ‘I am Lars Holmsakort, a private investigator from Sweden.’
‘Fucken Sweden, hey,’ said the man. ‘Fucken IKEA. Rootin this fucken sheila on the fucken table, the fucken legs fall off. Fuck fucken IKEA.’
Peter invented Lars to entertain me but he was otherwise the harshest critic of his own writing. He loved complex plots and tortured himself trying to wrestle them into submission. ‘The fucking thing has about fifteen 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.’ Some of Peter’s journalism students still wear the scars of his insistence on craft. Editing him was like editing granite. He loathed it: ‘I have done all the corrections AND I DON’T WANT ANY MORE FUCKING 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, a capacity he shared with Jack Irish. He had read everything. He was proud, shy, outrageously funny, a charismatic curmudgeon. Writers are sometimes plainer than their books, but Peter’s conversation could light up a room. 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 knew how to parse both a sentence and a society. He brought the sensibility of a poet to the demands of the crime novel. His incomparable ear gave us dialogue that is a brutal celebration of the way we speak. So much of The Red Hand reveals his endless facination with Australian speech.
When we sold his novels to FSG in the US, the American publisher asked him to write glossaries to unlock his Australian idioms. Peter relished this assignment, and I have included them in The Red Hand. Defining ‘sanger’ he wrote, ‘Sandwiches. Someone who fancied a chicken sausage sandwich could ask for a chook snag sanger.’ Trackies, he wrote, are ‘tracksuits, two-piece garments once worn only by people engaged in athletic pursuits, now worn by people who wish they had.’
Peter wanted to write a sequel to Truth and to write his fifth Jack Irish novel, but the books eluded him. He became an even more merciless critic of his own work. He worried that he had run out of things to say. He would write a draft, reread it, report to me how awful it was, and throw it away. It would have been unacceptable to submit a novel to his publisher which might fall short. His failure to produce another novel after Truth was the price he was prepared to pay for writing books that mattered so much. But if he was tormented by the prospect of a new manuscript it was always entertaining to torment his publisher too. He once emailed me to say that a manuscript was on the way only to send a message the next day headed ‘False Dawn’.
He heard us and saw us, our lies, our loves, our corruption and our kindness. His novels will be required reading for historians of Melbourne. He wrote about the city from the inside out: its football, its racetracks, its cafes and back lanes, its bent politicians and shonky property developers. He wrote again and again about men, pummelled by life, for whom humour, carpentry, horse racing and other diversions make the sadness bearable. He caught the signature accents of friendship between men, often separated by culture or race, survivors staring down their grief and rage. This is what connects Jack Irish with a character like the swaggie Rebb from The Broken Shore, a man who would otherwise be invisible in our society.
After he won the Miles Franklin, and had been given the award at a dinner in Sydney, the Text contingent flew back to Melbourne together. Our sales and marketing director, Kirsty Wilson, always a great champion of Peter’s work, let the flight crew know that the winner of the Miles was on board. As we began our descent, the captain announced Peter’s triumph over the PA and offered his congratulations. Our fellow passengers burst into cheering and applause. It was a wonderful moment. Peter pretended to be horrified but got off the plane with a secret half-smile, his response to the folly of things, which is how I remember him.
Published with kindly permission from Michael Heyward.
Peter Temple at CrimeMag.