Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Australian Crime

Until recently I had never read any Australian crime fiction but I can now boast about having already read two examples this year. In January I read Eden by Dorothy Johnston, which is not only Australian crime fiction but is also set in Canberra, thus continuing my mission to read books set in the capital. I have also recently finished The Broken Shore by Peter Temple, which I'll write about first because I can't praise this novel too much.

Peter Temple won the 2007 Duncan Lawrie Dagger for his novel, The Broken Shore, the first time an Australian author has claimed the prestigous prize. I can see why the judges might have chosen Temple's novel as I was absolutely blown away by it. The action takes place in a small coastal town in Victoria. Temple is careful to establish a strong sense of place. I could almost feel the cold winter rain of his setting and his descriptions of rural Australia are spot on. Take this passage for example:
Farmland had once surrounded the village of Kenmare like a green sea. Long backyards had run down to paddocks with milk cows oozing dung, to potato fields dense with their pale grenades. Then the farms were subdivided. Hardiplank houses went up on three-acre blocks, big metal sheds out the back. Now the land produced nothing but garbage and children, many with red hair. The blocks were weekend parking lots for the big rigs that rumbled in from every direction on Saturday- Macks, Kenworths, Mans, Volvos, eighteen-speed transmisssion, 1800-litre tank, the owners' names in flowery script on the doors, the unshaven, unslept drivers sitting two metres off the ground, spaced out and listening to songs of lost love and loneliness.

It's certainly an unromanticised view of Australian rural life.

Temple's detective Cashin is in many ways a cliche. He is posted to the country, tired and physically damaged, after a traumatic incident with a criminal in the city. He is battling with personal demons, as well as fighting other cops within the system. And of course an intriguing murder drops right in his lap.

It is to Temple's credit that he takes these standard features of the genre and makes them fresh. I believed in his characters. They speak and act like people I know. Temple captures the complexity of small town life, weaving class and racial tension into the plot with ease. Rarely has an author so accurately depicted the relationship between white and Aboriginal communities in small towns. The Broken Shore moves steadily and inexorably towards its resolution, using the conventions of crime fiction to create something fresh and absorbing.

Eden by Dorothy Johnston is another in her series featuring Sandra Mahoney, a security consultant who develops an obsession with the death of an ACT politician in a brothel. Johnston takes some pains to capture Canberra in January, a month when the city all but shuts down while most of its inhabitants escape the hot weather and head to the coast. The dry Canberra heat radiates off the pages and even as a reader I felt relief when the action shifted to a much cooler Sydney.

Johnston's story moves along at a steady pace, but for me this novel was too dry (and not just because of the weather). Much of the exposition seems awkward and forced. The plot is interesting but Johnston is so keen to reveal information to the audience that she does little to package it in an interesting way. Conversations are often unrealistic and clues are uncovered a little too easily. Nevertheless the premise and the crime are interesting enough for me to consider giving Johnston's work another go should I get the chance.


Sarah said...

I completely agree with you about The Broken Shore- it's a really convincing and enjoyable crime fiction novel. I've read a few other Peter Temple books and they were equally as good.

Dorothy W. said...

Peter Temple sounds interesting -- someone I'd never heard of and will have to look out for. I don't read much crime fiction, but when I do, I enjoy it.

Anonymous said...

I'm always happy to pick up a new crime writer, so I'm now off to the library site to see if Temple is available in the UK. Thanks for the review.

Fay Sheco said...

Just checked. The Broken Shore will come out in paperback in the USA Feb. 26th. Your review is persuasive, and you must have known the quote you included would be irresistable to certain readers.

jess said...

Sarah, I'm really keen to read more of Temple's books so I'm pleased to hear the rest are as good.

Dorothy, I don't read a lot of crime fiction either. I usually enjoy it, it's just there are so many other types of fiction that I love. Temple's definitely worth the effort though.

Table talk, the Broken Shore should be available in the UK- it has won awards there. Hope you enjoy it!

Fay, I look forward to seeing how the book is received in the US. Yes, I love that quote and was hoping others would too!