Monday, June 18, 2007
THE BROKEN SHORE
By Peter Temple
Farrar Straus Giroux. 357 pp. $25
Consider the opening paragraph of Peter Temple's novel "The Broken Shore" and what we learn from it:
"Cashin walked around the hill, into the wind from the sea. It was cold, late autumn, last glowing leaves clinging to the liquidambars and maples his great-grandfather's brother had planted, their surrender close. He loved this time, the morning stillness, loved it more than spring."
We don't know who this Cashin is or how he makes his living or even what country he's in. We do know that he lives near the sea, on land his family has owned for several generations, and that he loves the outdoors. What we've really learned, if we are attuned to such matters, is not about Cashin but about his creator: Peter Temple can write, can make magic with words. Of course, if we're not thus attuned, the paragraph will seem pointless and we'll either toss the book aside or start skimming ahead in search of action.
There is, in fact, a great deal of action ahead -- murder, rape, suicide, child abuse, police brutality, shootouts -- but always in the context of gorgeous writing. The novel is in fact an exceptional blending of first-rate crime fiction and a literary sensibility. This does not come entirely as a surprise. Temple isn't well known in this country, but in Australia, where he lives, "The Broken Shore" has already won the Ned Kelly Award for crime fiction, as did four of his previous novels.
Joe Cashin is a big-city detective who has been sent to the quiet little town of Port Monro, on the south Australian coast, to recover from serious injuries inflicted by a madman. Needless to say, Port Monro doesn't stay quiet. A wealthy citizen is beaten to death in his home. Three teenage "Abos," or Aborigines, are charged with the crime -- prejudice against Aborigines is central to the novel -- but Cashin, not convinced of their guilt, disobeys his superiors and follows leads that point to several of the region's leading citizens.
This plot is not exceptional, but the novel Temple builds around it is, because of his writing, his characterizations and his vision of Australia as a violent, bitterly divided nation. The characterizations start with Cashin himself, whose injuries have him in near-constant pain. He self-medicates in the evenings with whiskey, Maria Callas and Joseph Conrad, and he takes pleasure, too, in his beloved dogs, which become delightful characters in their own right. ("The dogs arrived from a mission in the valley, greeted Cashin with noses and tongues, then left, summoned to some emergency -- a rabbit rescue perhaps, the poor creature trapped in a thicket.") Cashin has an abundance of personal problems, including a troublesome mother, a suicidal brother and an ex-girlfriend who won't let him see their son. In one subplot, the lonely Cashin bonds with a "swaggie" -- we would say hobo -- whom he persuades to help him rebuild a run-down house on his property.
Temple presents sophisticated portraits of at least a dozen of Port Monro's citizens -- the rich and the poor, the honest and the corrupt -- all seen with compassion and without illusion. His story becomes political when the locals fight to stop a proposed luxury resort that will despoil their coast, and a charismatic young Aboriginal leader takes up the cause. Throughout, Temple finds time to please us with flashes of writing that range from poetic to brutal. As Cashin drives in the countryside, we're told that "farmland had once surrounded the village of Kenmare like a green sea." At a crossroads, a moment later, "two ravens pecking at vermilion sludge turned on him the judgmental eyes of old men in a beaten pub."
Temple introduces nine handmade pots left behind by a murder victim: "They were big, more than half a metre high, the shape of eggs with their tops cut off, tiny lips. Cashin thought it was a beautiful shape, the shape pots might want to be if potters would let them." Then we're told of their colors: "The pots were streaked and lined and blotched and speckled in blacks that seemed to absorb light, in reds that looked like fresh blood leaking through tiny fissures, in the sad and lovely blues and browns and greys and greens of the earth seen from space."
That's remarkable writing, but if you're afraid this is all sounding too precious, be assured that Cashin soon will have a bloody confrontation with two of the nastiest villains you'll ever encounter -- all this in a church, where one man is beheaded and another stabbed to death with a crucifix. In short, "The Broken Shore" offers both poetry and gore, and it's best if you have a taste for both. Having read the new novels of Michael Connelly and Martin Cruz Smith, I have to say that Temple belongs in their company. Australia is a long way off, but this bloke is world-class.