Wednesday, October 20, 2010

{review} australian crime

Peter Temple Truth (2009)
Leigh Redhead Cherrypie (2007) 

What unites these two books is their authors' enviable ability to capture the sounds of the Australian voice on paper.

Truth: A Novel
Villani thought about the dead he had seen. He remembered them all. Bodies in Housing Commission flats, in low brown brick-veneer units, in puked alleys, stained driveways, car boots, the dead stuffed into culverts, drains, sunk in dams, rivers, creeks, canals, buried under houses, thrown down mineshafts, entombed in walls, embalmed in concrete, people shot, stabbed, strangled, brained, crushed, poisoned, drowned, electrocuted, asphyxiated, starved, skewered, hacked, pushed from buildings, tossed from bridges. There could be no unstaining, no uninstalling, he was marked by seeing these dead as his father was marked by the killing he had done, the killing he had seen. (Truth
Peter Temple writes so beautifully (well enough to win the Miles Franklin) but it is not the writing one expects to encounter in a crime novel: "He felt Kiely's hatred enter his ear like warm olive oil." You need to pay attention, a lot of attention, to the clipped, sometimes opaque dialogue; otherwise Temple's extreme allusiveness will catch you out. At times the reader feels a total outsider, completely left out of the loop. Genre is being fiddled here, and no bad thing. 

I loved Truth – it was so evocative of Australian life, both city and country. As the bushfires rage and the city swelters, a (stereotypically) flawed but driven cop struggles with murder, corruption, white slavery and gangland warfare as his personal life crumbles. As his past comes back to haunt him, Inspector Stephen Villani faces losing the substance and purpose of a life spent in the pursuit of truth. But are there truths or are there only compromises? What compromises can you accept and which ones cross the line? Temple's cop is hard to like and he might not be a good man; or is he the best man? Hero? Anti-hero? They're by no means mutually exclusive. 
To Dove he said, 'Charge him with accessory to murder, conspiracy to pervert, deprivation of liberty, any old fucking thing crosses your mind. Then he can wait for Monday, have a little time to think.'
(Dove, incidentally, is an interesting character - an Aboriginal policeman recovering from a near death experience. I kept thinking, 'The sweet dove died' (Keats, not Pym). Was I meant to?)

Police corruption has been a fiery issues for more than a decade now in Australia and Temple perfectly captures that age-old problem, quis custodiet ipsos custodes? ('Who will guard the guards themselves?') - what if the guardians of law and order can't be trusted?
Vallani said, 'Cop is all I know... I've got what I hear is called a restricted skill set. I copied my bosses, they copied theirs.'
'That can work,' said Hendry, 'if you don't copy something flawed. Then the copies get worse in every generation.'
'That's what I'm saying,' said Villani. 'I'm several generations flawed. The object will soon be unusable.'
Regarding the narrative's construction: some might consider the attunement of the twin narratives of city and country to be overly contrived, but I thought they worked together well to build the tension. Bushfires – such as those which devastated Victoria the year before this novel is set - are a raw, painful scar on the Australian psyche and Temple perfectly captures the violent menace of nature – far more lethal than your average Eastern European gangster torturer. Temple is terrific with the details – the suburban allotment, the smell of the hot bitumen at the local shops, the taste ("ancient, of zinc nails held in the mouth") of rainwater from the tank, a woman's collarbones "deep enough to hold water. Small birds could sit on her shoulders and nod to drink", etc. His cop literally sniffs around crime scenes. You can smell the dust, the trees, the sweltering city, the burning country: "The bar was in the basement of an office block, smelled of pissed-on camphor balls, nylon carpet outgassing, the fears of failed salesmen." There are many more small ekphrastic masterpieces:
In the street now, the night wind had brought the smoke from the high country, mingled it with the city's smells of petrochemicals, carbon, sulphur, cooking oils and burnt rubber, drains, sewers, hot tar, dogshit, balsamic nightsweats, the little gasps of a million beer openings, a hundred trillion sour human breaths.
I highly recommend this thoroughly Australian novel which is far, far more than a cop thriller.

Favourite word: "eusuchian" head.
Rating: 10/10.
If you liked this... I've not read The Broken Shore (which won the Crime Writers Association 'Gold Dagger' - Temple is the first Australian to win this award), but it's on the TBR.

Cherry Pie

Cherrypie, Leigh Redhead's third volume in the 'Simone Kirsch PI' series isn't up to the standard of her previous efforts (Peekshow; Rubdown). I quite enjoyed the first two outings of the stripper who wants to be a private detective. They were brazen, funny and very, very Australian in tone:
The other blokes thought I was a top sheila, pressing myself against the guy and letting him cop a feel of my tits while I whispered sweet and dirty into his ear. What they didn't know was, I had his middle finger bent back at an unnatural angle and was increasing the pressure of my knee on his balls as I said, 'Sweetheart, you try that again and I'll snap this thing off and shove it up your arse, understand?'
This book still offers many titillating thrills and the subject is topical in this world of Masterchef, namely dark doings in the restaurant industry. But Simone Kirsch's constant undermining of her endeavours grates on this reader – why is the topic of women stuffing up their lives so popular? - and I think this will be the end of the series for me. Kirsch ('cherry', geddit?) is drawn along Stephanie Plum lines (plumb lines, oh dear, pun), and I also became quite irritated with Plum after a book or two, for much similar reasons. Or do I just dislike women named after fruit?! 

There is a lot going on in this book – too much? – what with the Melbourne restaurant scene, the Sydney underworld, the delving into the family history with tragic results, etc. The latter was in places incongruous with the lighter tone of the book in general, though interesting in terms of character development. I also found the narrative relied on occasion on not-so-believable contrivances to move the plot along. Like Temple's writing, what really held me in this book was Redhead's ability to put down the idiosyncrasies of the Australian voice on paper.

Rating: this book 5/10 (the first two are much better)
If you liked this... I didn't warm to Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum but that's the territory. Shotguns and a good mani-pedi; or, in this case, your most agonising Brazilian.

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  • 87. Helen Passes By [Bobby Owen 23] - E. R. Punshon [K]
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  • 85. There's a Reason for Everything [Bobby Owen 21] - E. R. Punshon [K]
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  • 63. Anne Belinda - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 62. The Black Cabinet - Patricia Wentworth [K]
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  • 44. Hack - Kieran Crowley [K]
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  • 40. The Pleasure Cruise Mystery - Robin Forsythe [K]
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