Down underbelly

Crime novelist Peter Temple burrows into Australian corruption.

TEMPLE OF DOOM The author’s latest novel tackles racism and murder.

TEMPLE OF DOOM The author’s latest novel tackles racism and murder. Photograph: Candy Bryce

One reason international crime fiction is so enthralling is that it reveals how various societies deal with depravity and violence. And when it comes to the shadowy side of the Australian dream, you can find no finer, wittier guide than journalist-turned-novelist Peter Temple.

Temple began attracting a readership with a four-volume series starring gritty lawyer Jack Irish, but it’s his 2005 stand-alone procedural, The Broken Shore, that’s broadened his following beyond genre fans. The book, in which opera-loving cop Joe Cashin uncovers the past of a beach community rotted by racism and child abuse, lands in the U.S. this week.

The rambunctious Temple, 60, spoke to TONY from his home in Ballarat, northwest of Melbourne.

How did you make your way from your native South Africa to Australia?

I wanted to leave South Africa very early on, but it was difficult when I was in my twenties, because no one would have you then. So I drifted until I was about 30, increasingly unhappy, and then I got a job in Germany, which enabled me to apply to emigrate to Australia.

You adapted well—I really like the fact that you never overdo the Australian slang.

If you come to a new society in midlife, your perceptions are sharper. Everything in Australia was strange to me. It’s an English-speaking country but it’s quite unlike England or America. It’s a very interesting and complex society, with lots of problems, and also a very egalitarian one. I identified with all of those things, and I also loved the vernacular. But it’s enormously irritating to read writers who are putting it on a little thicker than it should be.

The Broken Shore and the Jack Irish books feel very Melburnian in the way they go off on tangents about opera, Australian Rules football, cabinetmaking or horse racing.

Melbourne is a strange place, where the sensibilities of Europe meet the kind of manly, testosterone-charged Sydney atmosphere. It likes things of the mind. The winters are only enlivened by sitting in pubs arguing about politics, philosophy and football. You’re not a proper intellectual there unless you can move from Kierkegaard to football in one sentence. And it’s intensely tribal because Melbourne was originally divided into the territories of its football teams, and these teams are divided along class, religious and family lines.

Leaving the plot aside in favor of digressions seems very uncrimelike. Do you feel constrained by the expectations placed on genre writing?

Genre has limitations, but they really are the limitations of people’s expectations. There is a necessity to do some things because that’s what readers have come for. Part of it is constraint, part of it is quite enjoyable because you can play with the expectations. The tradition in the thriller or private-eye genre is the lonely, embittered hero, wandering through the landscape—the Inspector Rebus--like thing, which I don’t really enjoy very much. I like ensembles, people who have lives, families and friends, people who have histories and live in places they know or places they’re trying to get to know.

You write great sexy-tough women, who seem like they’re out of a Howard Hawks movie. Are you ever going to make one the lead?

It has crossed my mind, but my ability to sustain it worries me. And also I think it’s a bit impertinent. I’d really worry about someone saying, “Oh, you got it wrong. Women don’t do that.” Which would be rubbish, of course, because women do everything, but the feeling that you got it wrong somehow... I’m afraid I’m stuck with these crippled, wounded, dysfunctional men—

—with absent fathers.

And loony mothers! [Laughs] Yes, it’s bad news. You make your own prison, that’s for sure.

You tackle overdevelopment, corruption and aboriginal issues, but your books lack the sense of hopelessness so pervasive in crime fiction.

I think there’s less of a feeling of hopelessness in Australian society as a whole. I’m interested in the little choices we make; at every shabby little crossroads we arrive at in life, we make a choice of some kind, and then we have many years to look back on it. [Laughs] All the things that are interesting—mortality, the tenuousness of life, the very fragility of everything—lend themselves to crime fiction. It is capable of carrying a lot of freight. It doesn’t always, but it is capable of it.

The Broken Shore (Farrar, Straus and Gioux; $25) is out now.