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Crime Beat

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Peter Temple – from crusty newsman to top crime novelist

Back in the day Beverley Roos Muller worked with crime novelist Peter Temple on the Cape Argus. Here she records a few impressions of him from those times and her enthusiasm for his novels, particularly Shooting Star and The Broken Shore. Her piece first appeared in the Argus and is used here with thanks.

You don’t have to read a Peter Temple book. You also don’t have to watch the sun rise directly onto the face of Table Mountain, eat chocolate or drink a good white wine under a summery, leafy tree. You can opt for second best, but why miss out on memorable moments that carry life’s full savour?

Before we continue with this great new book of his, it’s worth mentioning that Temple is an ex-Capetonian. Both he and his wife worked at the Cape Argus many yonks ago, and I remember the diminutive and smiling Anita as a foil to the (apparently) crusty, veteran newsman Temple. That he could not have been more than thirty at the time shows how youthfully wet-behind-the-ears I was then.

Temple went to Grahamstown to teach journalism in the earliest days of that course at Rhodes, and I lost track of them. Later, I heard that they’d left South African in disgust over apartheid, lived for a time in Germany and fetched up in Australia in 1980. After moving from Sydney to Melbourne, Temple shared a life of journalism and lecturing there, before turning to full-time writing in 1995 after the success of his Jack Irish novels.

It’s always an awkward thing, reading a book written by someone you know. Much of the time book writers dread it, as we often know or have interviewed the person concerned, and are also aware of how much energy and emotional investment is poured into any publication. Then to have to write that it ain’t any good is a painful thing – at least I have found it so.

So when the Peter Temple Omnibus in paperback landed on my desk last year, my heart sank. There it squatted for some months, a reproachful reminder of my cowardice. How chastised I felt when reading The Broken Shore, the first of the three books in the omnibus: it was a revelation, like walking into a fast-food joint and being served a gourmet platter.

Today, Australia likes to claim Temple as their greatest crime/thriller writer, but back here we all know that his formative years and talents were formed on our home soil. So, like JM Coetzee, he’s really another one of our literary losses to the Antipodes. What a pity for us, but the move gave Temple a superb landscape for his dry, sparse, anti-establishment characters, with their terse wit and scant contempt for authority.

Ned Kelly country suits him perfectly. And, in an odd coincidence, he has won five Ned Kelly Awards for crime fiction (more than any other Australian), most recently in 2006 for his superb novel The Broken Shore, in which he captured the laconic, self-reliant atmosphere of the Ozzie outlands. It also won the Australian Book of the Year award. I did not yet know about these awards when I included The Broken Shore in my 2008 “Books of the Year” column last December, and so can claim to have read it ‘cold’ – and was simply stunned by its power, comparing it to Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men.

Temple’s latest novel, Shooting Star, recaptures the strengths of The Broken Shore, though this one is set in an urban landscape. Frank Calder is a loner, an ex-soldier and disgraced police hostage negotiator with a penchant for taking short cuts when he thinks the law isn’t doing its job. He’s a toughie with a soft heart, seen it all, jobbed around with skilled but fly-by-night experts who wouldn’t stand up to the cold light of scrutiny. Trusts few, but likes closure. Likes it a lot – to his own detriment, as sometimes closure isn’t really what’s wanting, as much as concealment.

In Shooting Star, one of Australia’s richest families is missing a young teenaged girl – for the second time. Seven years before, another Carson girl was abducted and managed to escape death by a hair’s breath, through her own efforts. The Carson family, tough as nails despite their philanthropic front, does not want the police involved, ostensibly because off the official botch-up during the first kidnapping.

They want a swift end to the second abduction, and they want Calder to negotiate it quietly. But Calder is not convinced that this second kidnapping is unrelated to the first, despite the considerable time lapse. And, with a growing sense of dread, he gradually unpicks a nasty web of deceit, betrayal and the general awfulness that we too glibly refer to as ‘family life.’

Shooting Star has an easy-to-read style, with a complex plot. It’s a page-turner, but that is not it’s greatest strength; that lies in the superb and deft writing, edited down to the essential, a reduction that gives so much savour to the story. You don’t have to read a Peter Temple book. But you’ll be missing something special if you don’t.


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