Peter Temple is two of the best writers I know.
He's the best novelist writing about crime in Australia, and considering how each of his books wins several awards, he's arguably one of the best crime writers on the planet.
And then he's a terrific novelist, period. Chapters are scenes. Sentences are packed with relevant information, delivered with a style so crisp every word crunches: "She was no more than fifteen, dark hair, pretty, it wouldn't last." He knows every last thing about his characters ("Tired in the trunk, hurting in the pelvis, pains down his legs, he swallowed two aspirins with the first swig of beer") and his setting ("peaty sod the color of chocolate when plowed"). And can he deliver a tale? In 340 pages, he can weave strands as diverse as racism, corruption, big money, family loyalty and personal kinks into a credible story.
Come for the crime, stay for the pure pleasure of reading.
I first encountered Peter Temple a few years ago, when I stumbled into Identity Theory and reeled out dazzled by plotting that was intricate without being confusing, characters so real I thought I was reading non-fiction, and dialogue that was always original but never mannered. Talent? To burn. But also a ferocious commitment to quality: "I fiddle endlessly with the prose, trying to catch speech rhythms, removing words, trying to find what can be left unsaid, trying to capture the look and the feel and the mood of a place."
For a day or so, I thought I could figure out how I could steal Temple's style. What a deluded ambition! Peter Temple owns a franchise, and with each book, he seems to move the bar higher.
Take The Broken Shore, his most recent novel. It starts with Joe Cashin, a police detective currently assigned to a small town near Melbourne, responding to a widow's distress call. Her trouble suggests the scale of local malfeasance --- someone's in her shed.
Cashin apprehends the man, inspects his clearly bogus decade-old identification.
"Could be a murderer," the widow suggests. "Killer. Dangerous killer."
It's a small moment, but let's appreciate the accuracy. That is, the widow's reaction. The way she talks. And Cashin's reaction: He drives the man to a bigger road.
And then this, watching the man walk away, "swag horizontal across his back, sticking out. In the morning mist, he was a stubby-armed cross walking."
A throwaway moment? Yes. Gorgeous? Very.
And, of course, ten pages later, there is a murder. Charles Bourgoyne, old and rich. His assistant, Cashin realizes, is cousin to a kid he went to school with. What happened to him?
"Dead," she said. "Drove his truck off a bridge thing near Benalla. Overpass."
"I'm sorry. Didn't hear about that."
"He was a deads--t, always drugged up. I'm sorry for the people in the car he landed on, squashed them."
She found cigarettes, offered. He wanted one. He said no.
This cross-cutting between the personal and the professional is not just the literary pattern of "The Broken Shore" --- it's the subject. The novel is set on Australia's "Blue Balls Coast," where tourism is the dream of the future and not much happens. The murder might have a bit to do with land development; it might also involve the theft of a Breitling watch. It definitely involves kids from the slums, an Aboriginal politician and the usual assortment of bent cops who sell the drugs they confiscate. And what are we to think about surveillance that ends in a shootout because Cashin was assigned --- might have been assigned --- a car with a faulty radio?
Even the minor characters get their moment, There's a lawyer who once, in school, kissed Cashin, and now, as his new neighbor, kisses him again. The barista is a former dentist whose lover --- whose male lover --- was knifed to death in a park, "possibly by policemen." And these detailed memories go way back --- Cashin recalls, as a boy, learning to surf on a board with a big chunk missing. "Shark. Chewed the bloke in half."
In "The Broken Shore," lives get chewed in half too. But not dreams. On this quiet, seemingly idyllic coast, they died long ago. Read it and weep --- and, also, cheer.