Monday, October 16, 2006

The verdict is in on Peter Temple's "Bad Debts" ...

... and it's favorable. I've finished the novel, and I'm pleased to report to my Australian friends and correspondents that I liked it for a number of reasons interesting enough to make me want to read more.

Bad Debts, the first of Temple's books about Jack Irish, exemplifies a special characteristic of the detective novel, of which one historian of the genre wrote that it "uniquely ... grew out of the character, rather than vice versa." Break down the plot of Bad Debts into its elements, and there's probably nothing you haven't seen before: sleazy land deals, corruption in high places, sexual misdeeds. A protagonist who lost his wife and sank into drink. A consoling sexual relationship. Lots of wisecracks. Bad Debts even brings back that older standby of crime novels and movies: a horse race and clever manipulation of the betting odds thereof.

Put them all together, however, and the controlling personality of the narrator/protagonist, with his low-key wisecracks and level-headed perspective, makes this something quite new in tone. Yes, Jack Irish has lost his wife to a violent killer. Yes, he came close to personal and professional ruin because of it. But no, he does not sink into self-pity. More to the point, he is capable of clear-eyed self-analysis that no self-dramatizing American, self-pitying Scottish or self-conscious Swedish detective-novel protagonist would be able to manage.

I had two plot quibbles: Temple's introduction to a female news reporter who plays a prominent role is slightly stale and familiar, and one obvious clue hits the reader long before it hits Irish. But that latter may be an aspect of Irish rather than a plot flaw. The man is refreshingly flawed, even refreshingly weak and pliable, in some ways, a rather more human private investigator than so many of the moral supermen and Christ figures who have walked down Raymond Chandler's mean streets.

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© Peter Rozovsky 2006

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11 Comments:

Anonymous Matt said...

Like your perceptive comments on BAD DEBTS. It was an excellent first novel and he gets better and better. Try the standalone IDENTITY THEORY for something completely different.

October 16, 2006  
Anonymous John Gooley said...

I agree with Matt, except I haven't yet read IDENTITY THEORY. Looking forward to it.

And yes, it's about character. I remember not really caring about the corrupt land deals, and the more they were explained the less I cared. (perhaps that's just me)

And one (minor) quibble, I recall thinking that Jack Irish at times was made to act less intelligent than he is in order to advance the plot - as with the obvious clue you mentioned that hits the reader before it hits Temple.

But it's a first novel, Temple was learning, and it was a damned good start.

Thanks for your insightful and interesting comments.

October 16, 2006  
Blogger Peter said...

Matt: Thanks for the heads-up. I don't know whether to look for Identity Theory next or whether to see what Temple does with Jack Irish. I think I may try another Jack Irish, to see what Temple does with that intelligence-of-the-protagonist issue that John and I both raised.

John: Jack Irish shows a certain weakness or lack of sharpness at other times in the novel, too -- as when he's too quickly swayed to change his position after a chat with a powerful figure, for instance. They could be simple devices to advance the plot, as you suggest. I'll want to see if they mature into genuine and more organic character traits in the later Jack Irish books, or if Temple simply drops them. This is one case where it probably helps to read the first book in the series before the others.

I wouldn't say I stopped caring about the land deals as much as I lost track of their complexity. That must be a challenge for an author, to keep a reader interested in such matters while still keeping them complex enough to be plausible as devices to drive a plot.

Thanks for reading, and thanks for the kind words.

October 16, 2006  
Blogger Damien said...

Peter: Your comment about keeping track of the complexity of the land deals struck a chord with me. Possibly the only criticism I have with Temple's books are that the plots sometimes become overly complex.

Thought I might mention that Identity Theory is titled In the Evil Day in Australia - just a warning for those who may think they're different books.

And a final recommendation. Do whatever you can (cheat, steal, con, swindle) to get hold of The Broken Shore. It's Temple's most recent and easily his best book so far - at least in my opinion. It just won the Ned Kelly Award (jointly) and there is talk of a sequel to look forward to in the future.

October 16, 2006  
Blogger Peter said...

It will be interesting to see how Temple handles complex plots, both in the Jack Irish novels and in his standalones.

It would be easy to imagine, for example, that the complex land deal in Bad Debts results from an effort to integrate thriller-type elements into a P.I. story. Maybe he accomplishes this task more smoothly in later novels, though maybe not, from what you report. I think Temple moves in thriller territory in some of his other books, perhaps in Identity Theory, if I correctly recall a post someone made here.

You're not the first to urge extreme measures to obtain The Broken Shore. I begin to suspect it might be worth reading. Thanks.

October 16, 2006  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

I started to read this on vacation last week but had to put it down (about 1/4 through) for the nonce. Maybe it was because I had just finished a McIlvanney Jack Laidlaw novel--full of Scottish colloquialisms and very stylish--and I found the shortcut dialogue and Aussie slang difficult to access. In my head I'm always reading with my brain's version of the regional dialect and it just couldn't handle it. So I turned to Frank Tallis's vacation site-appropriate "A Death in Vienna."

Preliminary quibbles... like reader John Gooley "I remember not really caring about the corrupt land deals, and the more they were explained the less I cared." This plot device is at least as old as Chandler and a tad threadbare. I presume Irish's carpentry sideline will be explained at some point? As will the horse racing sideline? The latter is spot on but I don't see its relationship (if any) to the main plot yet. The humor tends to rely a bit much on cock and pussy references (perhaps Temple pares this down in subsequent novels?). I smell a Chandler influence in the use of simile.

And, mind you, I'm not predisposed to look kindly on an author who says: "It's nice that there's a special occupation for the anal retentive. It's called librarianship." We got enough of that crap from our former supervisor...

But I will get back to "Bad Debts" soon and, from all accounts, Temple's work goes up from this debut.

February 16, 2010  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

PS to last...

"Temple's introduction to a female news reporter who plays a prominent role is slightly stale and familiar" -- after presenting Irish as a man completely bereft at the loss of his beloved wife, I found Temple's description of Jack's and Linda's first sexual encounter (and Jack's first sex since the death of his wife) quite at odds with what I might have expected. An experience that might in reality have presented some out-of-practice awkwardness on Jack's part was treated casually and for laughs.

Like many first-time authors I get the feeling that Temple is trying to put everything he has into this one book (the "Look, Ma, I'm writin'!" syndrome), forgetting that he can explore some of these same scenes, emotions, etc. in subsequent novels. This is another reason I'm gonna cut him plenty of slack this first time.

February 16, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Ah, cock and pussy references, what we call CPR.

The carpentry sideline is explained only insofar as working with furniture, and with the older master whom he helps, help keep Jack Irish steady and mentally adjusted. I don't remember if the novels explain the origin of the horseracing connection, but it's more than just a sideline. Irish is not a detective with sidelines, he's a man of several occupations. Perhaps Jack Irish's cabinetmaking and horseracing interests reflect Temple's own, but I find the descriptions fo convincing that I don't begrudge him this in the least. And Australian slang in crime novels is to me like the fizz in champagne.

My own quibble with one of the books is that the plotting sometimes got a bit Baroque (or Byzantine, depending which era or culture you wish to slander).

As for the slur on librarians, I had heard that Peter Temple was intolerant of editors, and I wondered about this in a comment or a post on this blog, to which Temple graciously posted a clever, pointed, well-reasoned reply.

February 16, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'll plead lack of memory on your second point. I don't remember that first sexual encounter. I discussed the book back when I was still emerging from the primordial ooze as a blogger.

February 16, 2010  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

"I discussed the book back when I was still emerging from the primordial ooze as a blogger." -- Yes, I realized that you had read it quite some time ago when I went looking for your comments on this book that you had recommended to solo and me. But it seemed odd to insert my comments on it in a present thread so I stuck it "back" here.

Don't get me wrong, I love the Aussie slang; slang is part of what makes period crime fiction so much fun for me to read. I just meant that my brain wasn't ready to "listen" to it last week.

I enjoyed this interview excerpt from 11/2005 with PT on the subject of horseracing:

"I have been researching horseracing for a good part of my adult life. I call it researching. Others might call it gambling [I call it handicapping; gambling is games of chance like the roulette wheel, slots, etc.]. For me, the appeal of horseracing lies in its uncertainty, its asymmetry, its beautiful arbitrariness. Rich people spend millions of dollars on perfectly bred yearlings and send them to training establishments that charge more than the Betty Ford Clinic.

Most of these aristocratic animals never win a race. Many never put a hoof on a racetrack. And then some battler spends five hundred bucks on an awkward-looking horse with nothing in its bloodline but small failures, trains it in a tussocky paddock, takes it to a picnic race, it wins by twenty lengths, takes it to a provincial, it streets them.

On a Wednesday, they take it to the city, get up in the dead dark, the horse runs against the princelings. It leaves them for dead. Life will never be quite the same again.

It's hundreds of stories like this that have given the track its special place in the inner life of Australians. They say that something good can happen to anyone, that lives can be changed by hope and perseverance.

And by taking a punt. And by sheer bloody luck."

This is a man who understands the lure of horseracing. And, BTW, illustrates a subplot in the set-in-Australia film "The Sundowners." A good horse can come from anywhere to anyone. (Let it be me.)

I was also intrigued by this tidbit:

"The books Jack reads don't exist, but, put together, a coded meaning can be found."

So far, I've got "In the Absence of War" + "The Means of Grace." Will await further clues!

February 17, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That is a beautiful little statement of horseracing's appeal. How infinitely superior to the flat newspaper (and, worse, television) accounts of heroic. come-from-nowhere horses!

Now I'll have to reread the books to solve that puzzle.

February 17, 2010  

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