Crime novels set in modern day Australia are few and far between. In fact, I've never read one before. But then I heard lots of good things, mainly from British critics, about Peter Temple's The Broken Shore and knew it was a book I had to track down.
I picked up a cheap copy from Waterstone's earlier in the year and read it over the course of a dismal weekend in June. The book was absolutely enthralling in a way I could not put my finger on. And because I couldn't quite work out what it was about the book that I loved so much I couldn't muster the creative energy to write a review. I then gave the book to my father, who was about to embark on a long haul trip back to Australia, and kept telling myself I'd write about it ... soon.
Well, two months later I'm finally composing this review-of-sorts. Since my reading of The Broken Shore, it has been awarded the Duncan Lawrie Dagger (formerly the CWA Gold Dagger for Fiction) for 2007. Temple, who was born in South Africa, is the first Australian to win the award.
But while it might have scored a top-class prize for crime writing, I'm not entirely convinced that this book is a conventional crime novel. The first half is very heavy on scene setting and character development and there's little in the way of detective work. But this is not a bad thing, because you get a real sense of what makes Joe Cashin -- and the rural community in which he lives -- tick. I enjoyed the slow sense of build-up, the careful exploration of Cashin's current life interspersed with the occasional flashback of his troubled past. You get a real feel for the man: his decency, his pain, his professionalism and his solitary nature.
Temple also interweaves some interesting political and racial problems into the storyline without resorting to cliche, although the picture he paints of rural Australia (and its police force) isn't exactly the one that the tourist brochures will want you to see.
The urgency of the plot picks up in the second half -- and goes off in unexpected directions. I'm not sure it entirely works, as there were elements that I found slightly unbelievable, almost as if Temple was trying too hard, as if he wanted to shock the reader and bang them over the head with the sheer outrageousness of it all.
But as a whole The Broken Shore is a refreshing take on crime fiction, both in setting and style. Temple nails the melancholy nature of small town Australian life -- it's petty grievances, its politics, its sense of community -- sprinkles a healthy dose of humour throughout and offers some brilliant dialogue that is so spot-on you can almost hear those flat, Australian accents reverberating off the page. In fact, this novel is such a realistic portrayal of my homeland I'm not ashamed to admit that it made me feel just a wee bit homesick in places...