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Peter Temple

(published as Spreading words with dinky-di determination

in The Canberra Times on 21 October 2006)

Australian crime writer Peter Temple’s latest novel ‘The Broken Shore’ is breaking the boundaries between crime writing and literary fiction. Carol Middleton speaks to a rising star.
For the New York edition of his latest novel The Broken Shore, Peter Temple was asked to compile a glossary of Australian words and phrases. Without this glossary, American readers would have found whole passages of the book impenetrable. Even with the glossary, they will probably still struggle with the laconic, truncated sentences. Temple is a ruthless editor of his own work and admits to deleting 10,000 words from the final draft of The Broken Shore before handing it to his Australian publisher, Text Publishing. He is happy with the idea of a glossary if it takes his books into the overseas market. Up until recently most publishers found his books “too Australian” for non-Australian readers. He would not dream of changing the dialogue, which is quintessentially Australian and “a large part of the book’s charm”.

Charm is not the word I would apply to his style. Other words spring to mind: trenchant, muscular, funny. The black humour that is part of Australian police banter is threaded through the dialogue. Not the stuff of literary novels, surely, but maybe this is the key to his acclaim as a writer. When he gave up teaching journalism and communications at university in 1995 (he pioneered the Professional Writing and Editing course at RMIT in Melbourne) and turned to crime fiction, he decided to write the sort of books he liked to read. He was not interested in replicating the Australian crime novel that might as well have been written in England with its neutral educated voice. He wanted to capture the reality of Australia and its people. He wanted his characters to speak like people in the pubs in Sunshine, in the outer suburbs of Melbourne.

It is ironic that Temple should be propagating the Australian language overseas. He was born in South Africa and has only lived here since 1980. But he feels “more Australian than anything else” and has an acute ear for the Australian vernacular, which he picked up during the years he spent in Melbourne, eavesdropping in pubs. It is a city that he loves, that he used to walk around at all hours of the day and night, before moving to Ballarat, his present home. Now that he visits Melbourne infrequently, he tries to keep pace with the changes in the city and in its human geography.

A closely observed Melbourne is the setting for his four Jack Irish crime novels: Bad Debts, Black Tide, Dead Point and White Dog. The first, Bad Debts, was published in 1996 and established his fan-base in Australia. He never intended the book to be the first of a series. It was taken up as a two-book contract, but Temple felt he had said all he had to say about this character Jack Irish in the first book. So, with relief and a sense of freedom, he wrote a stand-alone novel An Iron Rose, before embarking on the arduous task of reviving the large cast of thirty-two characters in the Jack Irish novel. Since then, he has alternated his four Jack Irish novels with stand-alone novels: An Iron Rose, Shooting Star, In the Evil Day and now The Broken Shore.

In the Evil Day was his attempt at an international thriller. It was set, not in Australia this time, but in Johannesburg, Hamburg, London and the United States. Brought out with the title Identity Theory in America, it was not a success, but is now being republished after the influential US website posted a rave review by Jesse Kornbluth: It's a brilliant piece of writing first, a thriller second. On the strength of this review, its Amazon listing jumped 20,000 in one day.
It looks like Temple’s international following is set to grow even more with The Broken Shore. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, the New York publishers, have published 20 Nobel Laureates since 1946, so Temple was astonished to find himself in such good company, especially for what he considers is “the most Australian of my eight books.” It is also coming out in France, Britain, Germany and Holland. The Broken Shore has gone beyond the crime genre and found new converts among readers of literary fiction. It was long-listed for this year's Miles Franklin award and has just been awarded the 2005 Federation for Australian Literary Studies' $10,000 Colin Roderick award for the "best book about Australia". These accolades are added to the four Ned Kelly awards he has won over the years from the Crime Writers' Association of Australia, including best novel award for The Broken Shore.

In The Broken Shore, Temple returns to Australia, to country Victoria, which is his current stomping ground. He wanted to get out of the city in this novel and write about the wide open spaces. He wrote it “in a despondent frame of mind”, thinking it might be the last book he ever wrote. He did not even care if was published. But it is his favourite now. “You don’t have to enjoy writing a book to do a reasonable job. You just have to sit down every day.” He has his theories about why the book is more accepted by the literary world. “It unfolds at a leisurely pace; it is more about character; it lacks the single-minded pursuit that is the objective of crime fiction; and it deals with family and friendships, which are usually the province of literary fiction.”

Unlike most literary fiction, The Broken Shore is very funny. Temple believes most writers are afraid of jokes, particularly local humour, and think their jokes should be universal. He does not worry about this. “I just ask myself: does this amuse me?” He loves the idea of coining phrases that pass into the language and talks with enthusiasm about the “near genius” of Barry Humphries, who invented thousands of Australian expressions such as technicolour yawn and splash your boots that did not exist before, but are now believed by many to be part of the Australian vernacular. “If you can invent something that is seen to be quintessentially Australian, you have found your place in that society.” I suppose that would be especially satisfying for a writer born and bred in South Africa.

Temple credits much of the success of his latest book to Text Publishing and in particular to Michael Heyward, who “could sell sand to Egypt”. The Broken Shore was published as a crossover, rather than a crime novel, with a cover that would appeal to a different readership. “It worked,” says Temple. “It has made a lot of people, who would not normally consider crime writers, thinking them to be inferior creatures, have a look at it”. He is now inspired to continue in this vein and has started a sequel to The Broken Shore, but without the protagonist Joe Cashin. He has obviously learned not to set himself up for another series that will require repeatedly waking up a cast of continuing characters.


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