An Iron Rose, In the Evil Day, Bad Debts
These three books by Peter Temple, read in a post-Broken Shore wave of enthusiasm, are gripping, unputdownable and highly recommended. An Iron Rose is set in the cold, wet countryside near Melbourne. “Mac” Faraday is an ex-policeman with a broken marriage, still mourning his father after some years. He’s a part-time blacksmith and part-time landscape garden-labourer, when he isn’t playing for the local football team. The book opens with the apparent suicide of Mac’s neighbour and friend Ned Lowey, and continues with Mac’s and the police’s parallel, but not mutually friendly, investigation of the death. Many of the elements of The Broken Shore are reprised here in slightly different guise: the strong, silent hero irresistible to women (and he to them), the poetry of the land and working with one’s hands and institutionalised corruption. Like The Broken Shore, the solution to the mystery in An Iron Rose lies in a children’s home, this time for “wayward” girls. These similarities should not put you off from reading both books, but don’t do as I did and read them too close together.
In the Evil Day is a surveillance thriller of breathtaking pace and fiendishly convoluted twists and turns. Set mainly in Germany and the UK with a prologue in South Africa, the main protagonists are John Anslem, a freed hostage who can’t return to full mental or physical health since his ordeal; Caroline Wishart, a journalist trying to break the story of the decade but instead being manipulated by just about everyone; and Con Niemand, a South African ex-mercenary who has the information that everyone seems to want to kill him for. You really won’t be able to put this book down once you start it, it is like John LeCarré on speed: if you can keep up with the plot then I admire you – but more than that, the characters are sympathetic and their plights moving. Definitely not a book to miss.
Temple returns to the same structure as The Broken Shore and An Iron Rose in Bad Debts, the first of his Jack Irish novels. Jack is a hero in the same mould as Mac Faraday and The Broken Shore’s Joe Cashin; in fact some might reasonably say they are indistinguishable once you’ve substituted a smithy for a furniture-making workshop and horse racing for soccer. All the men have loyal friends who are specialised at just the skill that is needed at a given time. Jack Irish, a widower and “retired” lawyer, is a less sympathetic protagonist than the other two, though – he’s not that principled and is genuinely cowardly. However, I warmed to him in the last part of the book when his girlfriend, a feisty reporter, makes him do the decent thing. The plot of Bad Debts concerns the death of after his release from prison of a petty criminal who had been poorly defended by Jack. In a fit of conscience, Jack begins to investigate the man’s death and uncovers a nest of corrupt vipers. All great stuff, and the horse-racing syndicate adds an extra dimension.
The Chicago Way by Michael Harvey is a different kettle of fish – a noir thriller in the mode of Chandler or Ellroy. Michael Edwards, private eye and ex-cop, is asked first by an old colleague and then by a suspiciously beautiful young woman to find out what really happened when she was viciously attacked some years ago. Edwards works by using his contacts to delve into the Chicago police force’s various archives – it seemed to me to be slightly stretching it to think that the answers to unsolved murder cases were simply sitting on a dusty shelf because everyone was too busy to follow them up, but the modus operandi gives the author chance to air his expertise in these matters. As time goes on, it seems more and more likely as if a serial killer is at work. Although I felt that the book was not entirely credible, especially when things come to a head regarding Edrward’s childhood friend from the streets and the unconvincing, somewhat clichéd, denouement involving his client, the book is a lean, mean read – with his knowledge of the windy city, Harvey has the potential to move up to Connelly or Crais territory if he reduces the slight “made for TV” taste in favour of tighter plotting..
Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell is a poetic novella set in the Ozarks – the impoverished and (in this book) icily cold mountain region of Missouri and Arkansas. Ree Dolly is a 16-year-old member of one of the clannish and impoverished families of the area, and the book describes her Homeric search for her missing father, who has put up the family house as security against a court appearance. The privations experienced by Ree as she pursues her apparently hopeless quest, against a background of trying to keep her small family together, are horrific. The hideous ramifications of “crank” (methamphetamine) production, the modern moonshine, are so intensely conveyed that I sometimes could barely read on. Yet the book is not gratuitous – rather I kept wondering why Ree let herself suffer so. We know she dreams of joining the US Army, but why does she stay in this closed community – closed to the assistance of education, medicine and the law? I was answered by the end of the book, when Ree’s Greek tragedy is played out: like Frodo, she has played by the only rules that can matter for her, and she receives her reward. A desperately sad book, brilliantly conveying the histories and culture of these people, and one that won’t leave you in a hurry.
Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn is a very different novel of the deep south. Here is melodrama in full: Joan Crawford-like mothers, Lolita-like daughters, soap-opera and teen high-school mixed in Grand Guignol of the first order. The plot is driven by a young and, we are told, second-rate reporter, Camille Preaker, who is sent by the grandfatherly editor of her Chicago newspaper to her hometown of Wind Gap, Missouri, when a young girl is abducted and killed. The idea is that Camille will break the story and regain honour both for herself and for her lesser-known paper. Because she has no budget, Camille has to stay with her estranged family: her obsessively houseproud and remote mother, her uninvolved stepfather and her precocious teenage half-sister. Everyone in her family, and everyone Camille meets, whether police, old school friends, or various members of the community, are universally strange or downright weird. This is one of those books where you could almost strangle the heroine yourself because she acts like a child and refuses to take control of the situation she’s in, being a passive victim of her circumstances. (Her body is covered in words made by cutting herself over a period of many years.) But she perseveres (or maybe I should write stumbles) to a solution of sorts. Without a doubt, the parodic account of the apparently perfect small town seething with vice under the surface is a page-turner, and the book probably deserves its enthusiastic cover blurb from Stephen King. This one is best-seller, not literary, crime.
The Murmur of Stones by Thomas H Cook is a claustrophobic little account of the death by drowning of a severely autistic boy. The tale is told by David, the boy’s uncle, and through him we gradually learn of his ghastly childhood, being bought up by a megalomaniac failed author whose wife has left him. Scarred by these experiences and his shattered family, David has a deliberately dull life with his wife Patty and daughter Abby. His sister Diana, however, is brilliant, and is completely distraught when her autistic son dies on one of the rare occasions she’s gone out and left her husband in charge. Cook builds up the tension beautifully in the book—did the boy’s father murder him? Did Diana? Diana’s behaviour becomes increasingly erratic and obsessive, zeroing in on Abby for her theories about memory in inanimate objects. Although the eventual solution is a bit of a cheat, this creepy tale reverberates in the mind. Diana is a particularly vivid creation.
Giles Blunt’s The Fields of Grief continues his excellent Algonquin Bay series, featuring detectives Cardinal and Delorme. I don’t recommend reading this one if you haven’t read the previous books, as this one starts with a real shock to regular readers whose impact will be lost if you aren’t aware of the history of the characters. I am not going to reveal the shock here, but plenty of other reviewers have done, and the book’s blurb reveals it, too. The investigation is very sad, and gradually reveals one of the creepiest and nastiest villains I’ve encountered (fictionally) for some time. I particularly liked Delorme’s thoughts on decorum – I would not agree with her in such a wholesale way about Americans, but I share her view that a return to more decorous ways would both be pleasant and go some way to avoiding some of society’s ills.
Finally, Still Life by Louise Penny is a bit of a romantic fantasy. A murder occurs in a beautiful little village in Canada (near Quebec), one of those villages where everyone is an artist or a perfect cook. There are nice touches, for example the female police graduate recruit who messes everything up in such an unaware fashion, and who isn’t a heroine. But although the book is a pleasant read with some nice echoes of Miss Marple, I could not get too involved in its “cosy” ambience. A lot of people have liked it, though, as it won the “best first novel” Arthur Ellis award from the Crime Writers of Canada (I presume in 2005 when the book was first published).