Dark Doings Down Under: The Broken Shore, by Peter Temple

October 24, 2007 at 2:05 am (books, Mystery fiction)

broken1.jpg peter_temple.jpg Reviews of this novel were glowing – and accolades flowing! – so naturally I had to read it. I dove right in – and came right back out – at least, on my first attempt. Temple’s style seemed deliberately elliptical; there were times when I wasn’t sure what he was talking about. The characters spoke in clipped fragments. I’ve encountered this stylistic quirk in the procedurals of Bill James, but James uses it to savagely humorous effect, whereas I was finding The Broken Shore anything but humorous.

Then Maggie, a friend and former co-worker at the library, wrote to me praising the book. I decided to take another crack at it. (For me, such a recommendation, made by someone whose opinion I value, can trump an unsuccessful first attempt or an indifferent review.) I had the same problem at the outset but stuck with it, and suddenly the novel took off for me on page 87. Temple describes, in heartstopping prose, an attempted intercept by the police – in moving traffic, in pouring-down rain, with guns on board – that goes horribly wrong. From that point on, I was hooked. The fallout from this cock-up occupies the rest of the narrative; that is, when it isn’t being interrupted by woes related to Cashin’s personal life. Temple pushed the boundary there, in my opinion; there were times when I felt that the soap opera elements were impeding the flow of the narrative to an extent that was potentially annoying.

The Broken Shore is set on Australia’s South Coast. Often, novels I read that are set in exotic or unusual places evoke in me a longing to go to that place. This novel did not produce that effect. Of course, it is always – or almost always – desirable to be near the water, but Temple’s descriptions of this part of Australia make it seem almost irredeemably bleak, dotted with broken-down structures and plagued by wind and rain. I gather the coastline itself can be quite dramatic in places; it certainly appears so on the cover of the hardback edition.

Detective Sergeant Joe Cashin is another one of those fifty-something cops living in reduced circumstances, both financially and emotionally. His life is full of negatives: the usual dysfunctional – in some cases, suicidal – family members, a son whom his angry former lover will not let him see, and co-workers from Hell. The most interesting of this latter group – and one who manages, ultimately, to redeem himself – is Paul Dove, an Aborigine. Dove is assigned to Cashin as his “offsider” – slang for sidekick or junior helper. (The Glossary of Australian Terms at the back of the book explains further that this expression originally referred to “…a bullock-driver’s assistant, who walked on the offside of the wagon.”) The rhythm of Temple’s prose gradually grew on me. Then a potential love interest for Cashin appeared on the scene – always a welcome development in crime fiction, but especially so in this case. Finally, a touch of dry humor arrived to lighten the mood – and it needed lightening, believe me!

Apparently Aboriginal policemen are rather thin on the ground, at least in this part of Australia (if not in every part; I really don’t know!). So Paul Dove has to fend off many wisecracks, not to mention some outright racist comments. (The picture that Temple paints of race relations down under is at times pretty dismaying.) Anyway, a woman Dove and Cashin are in the process of interviewing asks if she’s seen them on TV recently. Dove’s instantaneous riposte is: “You may have seen me…I’m the undercover cop. Sometimes I have a beard.”

The Broken Shore won the Duncan Lawrie Dagger for the year 2007. Awarded by the Crime Writers’ Association of Great Britain, the Duncan Lawrie Dagger (formerly called the Gold Dagger) is a prestigious award with a nifty cash prize of 20,000 pounds (about $40,000) to go with. Do I share the CWA’s regard for this novel? Well, despite my initial reservations, yes. The writing, once you get used to it, really is excellent: not only does Temple write great dialog, but there are some terrific descriptive passages as well. The plot, once it shifts into high gear, is compelling. So, although it might not grab you from the start, yes, do read it; there are rewards aplenty as events unfold!

4 Comments

  1. waltzingaustralia said,

    Well, an interest in Australia suggests that this might be worth a read. I’, wondering if the title is an oblique reference to “The Fatal Shore,” Robert Hughes’s history of early Australia, or just a description of the ragged southern coast. (Which, by the way, is bleak in spots, but is also spectacular in others.) Interestingly, given the Aboriginal side kick, no good man-hunt in Australian literature or lore is without its Aboriginal tracker, and even now, trackers are valuable aids to police. In addition, one of the most famous characters in Australian literature is an Aboriginal police officer: Detective Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte in the series of murder mysteries by Arthur Upfield. So it would be interesting to see how they make this policeman’s situation “dismaying.”

    And if this book doesn’t make you want to go to Australia, I’d urge you to find a book that does make you want to go. It’s worth the trip.

  2. Roberta Rood said,

    Waltzingaustralia:

    The Broken Shore refers to s specific area of the coastline that is extremely dangerous. Temple describes it thus: “…the huge sea, the gray-green water skeined with foam, sliding, falling, surging, full of little peaks and breaks, hollows and rolls, the sense of unimagineable power beneath the surface, terrible forces that could lift you up ans suck you down and spin you and you would breathe in icy water, swallow it, choke, the power of the surge would push you through the gap in the cliff and then it would slm you against the pocked walls in the Kettle, slam you an slam you until your clothes were threads and you were just tenderised meat.” (p.166)

    Thanks for making me look at that passage again; Temple really can write powerfully. And thanks for your thoughtful post. I know Australia is a fascinating country; I’ve talked to people who have been there and couldn’t wait to get back. And I appreciate your reminder about Arthur Upfield’s mysteries, which I’ve always meant to read. (Last time I checked, they were not in print in the U.S.)

  3. Nick said,

    I’ve just started the book after a recommendation from my father. I too find him compelling and haven’t struggled at all. The clipped prose is a spot-on reproduction of the way people talk in this part of the world!

  4. Usual Suspects: a most stimulating evening! « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] suggestions? Marge mentioned A Carrion Death by Michael Stanley (Botswana); Pauline brought up The Broken Shore by Peter Temple (Australia). The Case of the Missing Servant by Tarquin Hall was thrown into the […]

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