Welcome to Murder by the Book's blog about what we've read recently. You can find our website at www.mbtb.com.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Bad Debts, by Peter Temple (out of print) (c2005)

It took a lot of restraint to keep from immediately tackling every known work by Peter Temple as soon as I had finished Broken Shore, a book I loved for its language and characterizations. Actually, it didn't take a lot of restraint because Temple's books, with the exception of Broken Shore, are out of print in the U.S. This Australian writer is mostly an undiscovered gem from Down Under. Slowly, over the last year or so, I've managed to find -- or other people have stumbled on them and passed them on to me -- a couple more: Bad Debts and Black Tide. I've put off reading them until I've absolutely needed the comfort of reading a sure-fire winner. After reading sturm-und-drang and just-plain-silly lately, I wanted something that reminded me that language can convey more than a story. In Temple's case, the poetry and black humor in his words immediately elevate my reading experience.

Bad Debts is the first of four books in the Jack Irish series, according to the wonderful website, www.stopyourekillingme.com. Among the many things you slowly learn about Jack is that "Irish" is not his last name. Somewhere along the ancestral line his real family name was mangled into "Irish." I hate to reveal details about Jack's life that the author painstakingly teases out over the course of the book ... so I won't. However, the details embellish what you already sense about Jack, that he's capable of playing both good cop and bad cop (although he is not a cop), that he's capable of feeling fear but is also fearless once he makes up his mind, that he has seen tragedy almost beyond bearing.

Jack is an attorney who doesn't practice law anymore. Instead, he finds people who owe money to his employers (who are a little shady, perhaps), helps run gambling schemes (a little toe over on the shady side), and apprentices to a master woodworker (a Zen experience to balance the shadiness and gloom in other parts of his life).

When Jack was an attorney he specialized in criminal defense. Danny McKillop, one of his ex-clients, has been released from jail. He claimed then and claims now to be innocent of killing a woman while driving drunk. He calls Jack for help in proving his innocence, but by the time Jack gets his message, his client is dead, shot by the police. It would be a very short book if things didn't go sideways from there. There are intimations that Danny may have been the victim of a larger-than-life conspiracy. On the other hand, Danny may have been just plain crazy. Either way, Peter Temple does a gorgeous job of showing us Melbourne and its fictional warts. Interesting characters abound.

The star of the show, let's not forget, is Temple's writing. Here are some samples, chosen at random (that's how good he is):
The Minister smiled. He had a thin, sly face with high cheekbones. Something about it said cosmetic surgery. His full head of dark hair was the kind that doesn't move in the wind.
I put in the next day at Taub's [the woodworker's], cutting a taper on and hand-morticing the legs of the boardroom table. It was soothing work for someone not feeling all that flash. Charlie didn't make tables any more unless he had to. Having me around meant he didn't have to. 'A table is pretty much a table,' he said. 'When you can't make a complete ruin.'
And, finally:
'Nice bit of cloth,' I said. Drew was wearing a navy-blue suit.

"He looked down at himself. 'Bought it with the tip Mrs De Lillo gave me,' he said. 'From Buck's. Nine hundred dollars.' He pointed at a lapel. 'There's a puke stain here you can barely see.'

"'Nearly invisible,' I said. 'From about a hundred metres in bad light. ...'
Instead of selling this paperback, I may just put it on loan, so people will have to bring it back and other people can share this rare treat. Or I'll move to Australia.

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