Review 1865: Truth

Of the Peter Temple novels I’ve read, Truth strikes me as the most hard-boiled. It has witty dialogue but not the lightness of some of the others. The ending is lighter but also cynical.

Stephen Villani has just been made the head of the Victoria Homicide Squad, and he’s already exhausted. At a brand new, very expensive condo, the body of a young girl is discovered, in her teens, maybe, and clearly having suffered abuse before her death. Villani is even more affected because she looks like his 15-year-old daughter, Lizzie, who has run away from home.

When his team begins trying to collect data from the building’s security people, they are told there was a big system outage that night because of an opening at the attached casino, so they have no camera footage and cannot tell whose key card was used to enter the condo. Also, the management is reluctant to divulge the names of the owners.

A bit later, they are called to a scene of torture and murder of two thugs in a local gang. The pressure comes down to Villani to concentrate on this crime and drop the investigation of the girl’s murder, but Villani is not willing to do that.

Besides pressures at work, Villani has other troubles. A huge forest fire is threatening his father’s place as well as the forest he and his father planted, and he knows his father won’t evacuate. His daughter Lizzie was returned home but already ran away again. His relationship with his wife Laurie is on the skids. And he is tormented by his relationship with his father, who left him alone at a young age to take care of his younger brothers but has never shown him any affection. Finally, he has kept silent about a major crime committed by a coworker.

Temple never seems to use an unnecessary word, and here the effect is heightened by the tough, affectless cops who only seem to speak in incomplete sentences. The dialogue is witty, although I didn’t understand all of the slang. This is a complex, cynical thriller about family and politics in law enforcement.

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Review 1853: The Broken Shore

Recovering from severe injuries inflicted in an encounter with a dangerous killer, Detective Joe Cashin has left a big-city homicide squad for his home town in a small Australian port. He is living in the wreck of his grandfather’s house.

His superior officer orders him to take charge in the assault on Charles Bourgoyne. An old man but still powerful and respected, Bourgoyne was brutally attacked in his own home and is in critical condition. The initial hypothesis is that the attack was a robbery gone wrong, as his expensive wrist watch is missing.

Cashin’s role is resented by Detective Hopgood, because the crime happened in Cromarty, in Hopgood’s jurisdiction. When they get a tip that three Aboriginal teenagers from the area tried to hock a watch of the same brand as Bourgoyne’s, Hopgood manages to botch their apprehension so that two of the boys are killed. Cashin is told to take leave, but he continues to pursue the case.

This is a dark and moody mystery written in Temple’s usual fluid and witty prose. It’s quite gripping.

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Review 1852: A Room Made of Leaves

Even from the Editor’s Notes of what purports to be Elizabeth Macarthur’s memoirs, we get a hint of what’s coming—the husband getting the credit for establishing the wool industry in Australia while the wife did all the work. The husband revered as an important founder of the nation when he was actually disliked and hated during his life and was away for many years.

As Elizabeth grows, she loses her family—her beloved father to death, her mother to a second marriage, her grandfather to her own marriage. She learns to hide her real self behind a docile, submissive mask. When she meets Ensign James Macarthur, part of her sees him for who he is, but she is curious and has no prospects, and her curiosity ends in her pregnancy. Her first lesson in her husband’s character comes before marriage—James is more interested in the pursuit than the capture.

James is in fact ferociously ambitious, but his touchiness about his lack of breeding makes him angry enough to work against himself. Elizabeth learns he is vengeful and likes to weave vast conspiracies to advance himself and bring down others. But his judgment is poor.

Posted to Gibraltar, James sees the possibility of a posting at the newly established prison in New South Wales as an opportunity and believes the brochures extolling the new colony. Elizabeth is skeptical, but she handles James poorly and finds herself on her way, again pregnant and with a new baby. However, eventually she discovers opportunity when James finagles 100 acres of Australian land by his manipulations of the governor. She and her two convict servants begin establishing a herd of sheep.

I found this novel vivid and deeply interesting, as Elizabeth learns how to handle her horrible husband and make a satisfying life for herself and her children. The novel evokes the raw early days of the 18th century colony as well as, occasionally, its beauties. I read it for my Walter Scott project and liked it very much.

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Review 1809: The Survivors

I haven’t read much by Australian writers, so when I noticed that Jane Harper seemed popular, I thought I’d give her a try. The Survivors is set in Tasmania, and I am attracted to books set on islands.

Kieran Elliott hasn’t returned to his small home town for 12 years, not since the storm. But his father has Alzheimer’s and his mother is trying to move them, so he has brought his partner Mia and their baby daughter back to the beach town in Tasmania to help with the move.

It is late in the season, and most of the summer people have gone home. One of Kieran’s high school friends, Olivia, has had a house mate for the summer, Bronte, and Olivia is glad that Bronte will soon be leaving, because there has been friction. Bronte has been working late at the local bar and restaurant, and after Kieran was there late with his friends, Bronte is found dead on the beach.

The storm years ago has been an elephant in the room, but it’s not until about page 75 that we find out Kieran had been in some sea caves that day and came out too late for the storm rise. His older brother Finn and Finn’s partner lost their lives in the storm trying to rescue Kieran. Some townspeople blame him for their deaths, including his own father.

Although this incident would appear to have nothing to do with Bronte’s death, we don’t learn until about page 120, as if it’s not important, that a girl disappeared on the day of the storm, Gabby, Olivia’s 14-year-old sister. When her backpack appeared in the surf, the police assumed she had drowned in the unprecedented storm surge.

Of course, Bronte’s death is related to Gabby’s disappearance.

I found a few things about the novel a little irritating. One is slight—that Harper remarks on the physical fitness of practically every male character. Maybe this is an Australian thing or maybe it’s supposed to reflect Kieran’s profession as a physiotherapist, but it seemed silly and unnecessary. Then there is a continuity problem—if Kieran’s rescuers died, how did he get rescued? There is no explanation of that. It also bothered me that Harper took so long to tell us what happened during the storm, as that delay didn’t seem to serve a purpose, and even more so that Gabby’s disappearance was treated like an afterthought.

Things get going slowly, but they seemed to be building to a satisfying and exciting conclusion, but no. Without giving away the ending, let me just say that the promised thriller ending sort of fizzles out. That being said, there are some interesting developments at the end of the novel, causing it to improve considerably.

I don’t mean to give this novel a bad review. It was interesting enough to keep me engaged; there are just ways in which it doesn’t quite deliver.

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Review 1802: White Dog

In this last of the Jack Irish novels, Linda has just left Jack for a position in London when he accepts a job from his ex-law-partner Drew. Sarah Longmore, an artist, has been accused of murdering her ex-lover Mickey Franklin. Sarah says she didn’t do it, but the prosecution has a witness placing her near the scene, and the murder weapon was a gun Mickey loaned her. Drew wants Jack to look for evidence that she is innocent.

Jack begins poking around but is unable to find out much except that three of Mickey’s former associates are missing. Against his own instincts, Jack and Sarah become lovers, but later when Jack goes to her studio to meet a witness, the building explodes, killing Sarah and badly injuring Jack.

Now that Jack’s client is dead, Jack is more determined than ever to find out who killed Mickey. The novel does not neglect Jack’s sidelines of learning cabinet making, hanging out with the old men Jack calls the Fitzroy Youth Club, and helping Harry Strang and Cam with horse-racing projects.

Again, Temple has produced a suspenseful and exciting novel in his Jack Irish series.

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Review 1780: Dead Point

Things haven’t been going well at the track for Jack Irish, Harry, and Cam. They just had to shoot a horse, which broke his leg just as he was winning a race. But that’s not the worst. The men’s friend Cynthia was returning from the track with the winnings for a syndicate they put together when she was robbed and brutally beaten. There are no leads, but they soon hear of another similar incident.

Jack’s involvement in these activities has been leading him to neglect a job for Cyril. One of Cyril’s clients wants him to find a man named Robbie Colbourne, who works as a bartender. Jack has barely started looking for him when he reads that the man was found dead of a drug overdose. However, the client asks to see Jack. He turns out to be an eminent judge who had an affair with Robbie, during which Robbie stole a compromising photo album. He hires Jack to find the album.

Peter Temple has written another great thriller, but he has also invented a rich life for his character, who surrounds himself with interesting people. He’s taking the “youth club,” a bunch of octogenarians, to the football, he’s installing a library, he’s advising his ex-partner on his love life, he might be getting back together with Linda. Temple likes his characters and makes working-class Melbourne come to life.

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Review 1767: Classics Club Spin! A Town Like Alice

Best of Ten!

I haven’t ever read anything by Nevil Shute, so I decided to put A Town Like Alice on my Classics Club list, and then it was chosen for the latest spin. I’m glad I chose it for my list, because it’s a really good book, hard to categorize—part war story, part love story, part adventure story, about brave and resourceful people and challenges faced. I loved it.

The novel is narrated by Noel Strachan, an elderly solicitor, who finds himself the trustee for a young woman named Jean Paget. After they befriend each other, Jean confides to him that during World War II she was in Malaya when she and a group of women and children were taken prisoner by the Japanese. Since the Japanese didn’t know what to do with them, they were marched hundreds of miles back and forth over the Malay peninsula. Half of them died until Jean made a deal with a village headman that he would allow them to stay there if they helped with the rice harvest. During the time they were wandering, an Australian POW who was driving trucks for the Japanese tried to steal food for them and was crucified by the Japanese. Jean decides to use part of her legacy to dig a well in the Malayan village to thank them for helping.

While in Malaya, Jean learns that the Australian man, Joe Harman, did not die as she thought. She decides to go to Australia to try to find him. As fate would have it, however, he comes to Strachan’s office in London looking for Jean, having learned that she was single after thinking all this time that she was married.

About half the novel is about the couple finding each other, but then Jean sees the nearby town to the remote station where Joe works. She learns that the girls won’t stay in town because there is nothing there for them, and Joe can’t keep men on the station because there are no girls. The resourceful Jean decides that if she can’t bear to live in the town, something must be done to improve it.

It’s easy to see why this novel is so beloved, although caution—there is incidental racism that reflects the times. That being said, I found this novel deeply satisfying—engrossing, touching, full of life and spirit.

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Review 1748: Black Tide

I understand Peter Temple’s Jack Irish series is classified as hard-boiled crime, which is usually too much for me, but Temple’s writing is so effortless and funny and his characters so interesting that reading these books is a pleasure.

In this second book of the series, Jack is trying to help Des Connors, an old friend of his father. Des’s son Gary has borrowed all of Des’s savings and disappeared. Further, he has mortgaged Des’s house and not paid the bills. If Jack can’t find Gary, Des will be homeless and penniless.

Jack is also involved with his friends Harry and Cam in finding and betting on unlikely racehorses. While involved in this pursuit, they uncover serious cheating at the track.

One of the pleasures of this series besides its carefully constructed plots and punchy dialogue is the full life Temple has constructed for Jack. There is his bunch of elderly pals at the bar, who are obsessed with his dad’s old footie team, his woodworking apprenticeship under his severe teacher, Charlie, his disreputable clients, and his love life. This isn’t going so well as Linda Hillier has taken a job in Sydney.

As Jack looks for Gary, the plot becomes more and more tangled, and he keeps encountering dead bodies. These are really fun, exciting thrillers.

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Review 1698: Bad Debts

My husband and I binge-watched all of the Jack Irish series and movies early during the pandemic. That led me to look for the first Jack Irish book, Bad Debts.

Jack Irish is a lawyer who has moved from high-powered cases to investigations and more mundane law work after the murder of his wife. He doesn’t immediately return the call of an ex-client, Danny McKillop, because he frankly doesn’t remember him. He misses another phone call from McKillop saying he’s in trouble and asking Jack to meet him in a pub parking lot. Jack looks up his file and finds that McKillop was found guilty of a hit and run of a political activist, while he was drunk. When Jack tries to contact McKillop, he learns he is dead, having been shot by police in the parking lot where he asked Jack to meet him.

Jack figures he probably didn’t do a great job of defending McKillop, since he was drunk most of the time after his wife’s murder. The evidence against him seemed solid: McKillop was found passed out in his car with Jeppeson’s DNA on the hood. But when Jack talks to Danny’s brother, he says that Danny was seen passed out some distance from his car shortly before the hit and run. McKillop’s wife says he had been a model citizen since he got out of jail, contrary to the police explanation of the shooting.

Jack decides to investigate the original incident, opening up a big can of worms.

This is an enjoyable novel, tightly plotted, full of action yet witty and well-written, a little more hard-boiled than I usually read but with appealing characters. The setting is a gritty Melbourne, Australia. Unlike most investigators in fiction, Jack has a well-developed other life, working horse-racing deals with Harry Strang and his colleague Cam, hanging out with the guys at the local, and learning woodworking from a master. And he meets Linda Hillier, an attractive reporter. I will definitely read more.

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Review 1628: My Brilliant Career

My Brilliant Career is the very singular story of the life of an Australian teenage girl in the bush in 1901. It isn’t so much singular in its plot as in the personality of Sybilla, the main character.

Sybilla’s childhood was spent in comfort, as her father was a prosperous horse breeder. However, well before this novel starts, her father decided his talents were wasted, so he sold his property and began a career selling livestock. He was unsuccessful, and he drank heavily in entertaining prospective clients. When the novel opens, the family is struggling to run a dairy with their father drinking away the money he makes selling butter.

Sybilla at 15 is admittedly a difficult person. Her mother never gives her a kind word, and her mother and brother twit her about her lack of good looks. She angrily resents their life of endless labor for no good result. In fact, she is ambitious to become more but doesn’t know how to go about it. She is an unusual mixture of self-confidence and self-hatred and is angry and rebellious.

Sybilla’s mother becomes so angry with her that she arranges for her to go live with her grandmother farther into the bush. There, Sybilla blossoms under the kind treatment of her grandmother, her uncle, and her Aunt Helen. Her aunt helps her look more attractive, but she never gets over believing she is ugly. Romance even seems to be on the horizon.

I thought that the view this novel gives of Australian frontier life is really interesting, and I was particularly struck by the amount of traffic going by the grandmother’s house and the number of homeless, wandering men. However, I was unsatisfied with this novel, and to explain why, I have to include spoilers, so be warned.

A feminist interpretation of this novel might be that the heroine chooses to write a novel instead of getting married, but that would be ignoring Sybilla’s difficult personality. Continually, she seems to bite off her nose to spite her face, and in the case of marriage, really declines out of a sense of inferiority rather than anything else. She decides not to marry Harold and stays in a life she hates because she can’t believe he loves her and she thinks she is not good enough for him. I find that really frustrating. It’s not that I wanted a romantic ending so much as it bothered me how she never really sees herself or is able to get past being told how worthless she is by her mother.

I read this for my Classics Club list.

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