The Broken Shore by Peter Temple (2005) 354 p.

 

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I’m not normally a reader of crime fiction, but Peter Temple won the Miles Franklin for his later novel Truth, so he must be a cut above average. As I understand it, Truth is a semi-sequel to The Broken Shore, so I figured I’d read that first.

The Broken Shore is essentially a hardboiled detective novel, complete with a jaded and cynical protagonist. Joe Cashin is in semi-retirement from the homicide squad after being badly injured in an attack by a drug lord that also left a younger detective dead. He now heads up the four-man police station in his quiet hometown of Port Monro, in coastal Victoria. He takes care of his dogs and is keeping himself busy by rebuilding his family’s old homestead. When a local billionaire is found murdered in his mansion, Cashin finds himself drawn back into the world of high profile crime.

I read this while I was visiting Melbourne again, my adopted hometown, before going to the United States. It made me weirdly homesick – for a place which is not technically my home – in a way I can’t articulate. I think it’s the fact that most of it takes place in the Victorian countryside, which is still a bit of an alien place for me. Melbourne feels more like home than Perth ever did, but I never quite got used to Victoria’s old, well-settled, green countryside – a place where, unlike Western Australia, it’s perfectly normal to find a mansion owned by a wealthy horse-breeder out in the sticks.

A bit less plausible was “the Daunt,” the Aboriginal township at the edge of the town of Cromarty (also fictional). It’s considered a place apart, and the local police fear raiding suspects’ houses there in the aftermath of the murder for fear of inciting what one character describes as “a Black Hawk Down situation.” This would have been more plausible in WA or the Northern Territory or Queensland; I’m not aware of any towns in Victoria with sizeable Aboriginal populations. Similarly, the character of Bobby Walshe – an up-and-coming Aboriginal politician in the fictional United Party – also felt very contrived. Temple engages well in general with the clash between Aboriginal and white Australia, which is the subtext of the first half of the novel, but our society isn’t quite at the level where Australian fiction can realistically have a David Palmer character. Which is sad, but there it is. It wouldn’t have stood out so much if the rest of the book hadn’t been pitch perfect in capturing the mood, the tone and the dialogue of a small Australian town.

Those flaws aside, the first half of the novel is great – it’s fast, it’s punchy, it has a particularly well-written scene in which a police operation in a rainstorm goes badly wrong. Temple imbues Cashin with a world-weariness which sets the tone of the novel but avoids becoming too despondent or grating, and I thought I began to see why he went on to win the Miles Franklin (beyond the above-average level of prose and characterisation, for a crime novel). I honestly thought the crime would go unsolved, or be pinned on Aboriginal teenagers Cashin knew to be innocent, and that The Broken Shore would break free of the neat conclusions found in a traditional murder mystery.

But in the second half new suspects emerge, and the investigation goes on, and unfortunately it doesn’t have the same flair as the first half of the novel. The ultimate murderers, in fact, feel more like pantomime villains, and the climax of the novel is a violent set-piece which belongs more in a cop movie than in the quiet, thoughtful, semi-literary novel I thought The Broken Shore was going to be.

I still liked it a lot. I can unequivocally recommend it to fans of crime and mystery fiction, especially in Australia. I just felt a little let down by the ending, but perhaps I was unprepared for the genre conventions. I’ll still read Truth.