When Peter Temple died in March 2018, Australia and the world lost a unique literary talent. In The Red Hand, his publisher, Text, has gathered together not only an unfinished Jack Irish novel, but also short stories, essays, literary criticism, book reviews and the screenplay of the ABC telemovie, Valentines' Day.
Text publisher, Michael Heyward, in his introductory essay pays tribute to his rather eccentric author, the only Australian to win the CWA Gold Dagger and the only crime writer to win the Miles Franklin, describing Temple as a "charismatic curmudgeon". Temple's fiction for Heyward is full of "pain, grief and melancholy . . . but there isn't a page without sly humour or where the language doesn't gleam".
Temple came to Australia from South Africa in 1980 and loved his new country - "an Australian by rebirth". His extraordinary understanding of Australia, particularly the nuances of its language and the ironic sense of humour of its inhabitants, is reflected in his writing. Originally a journalist and editor, he turned to writing fiction in the 1990s with instant success as Bad Debts, his first Jack Irish novel, won that years' Ned Kelly Award for Best First Novel. Eight more novels followed, including his seminal work The Broken Shore (2005) which sold over 100,000 copies in Australia and won the Ned Kelly Award for Best Novel, 2006. It's semi-sequel Truth (2009) won the Miles Franklin Award in 2010.
Temple's heroes are damaged men, but obviously attractive to female readers as Heyward reveals that some of them "discreetly inquired if it might be possible for them to sleep with Jack Irish". Heyward describes Temple's men as "pummelled by life for whom humour, carpentry, horse racing and other diversions made their sadness bearable". Temple planned to write a sequel to Truth and another Jack Irish novel but they didn't eventuate. Temple said that, "writing doesn't come easy to me. Being stuck is the rule . . . most of the time, I am convinced that the whole enterprise is a mistake and doomed". A concept that makes the substantial fragment of the last Jack Irish novel, High Art, in The Red Hand all the more poignant.
Temple assembles his usual cast of characters against the backdrop of Melbourne with its obsession for football and horse racing. Melbourne, where at night "the inner city had lowered its volume for a few seconds, one of the strange moments in the day when all the traffic lights seemed to be on red, when no-one hooted, when all the trains stood silent in the station". Jack Irish gets involved in an investigation into the death of a million dollar race horse with Harry and Cam, while at the same time, an old friend from his university days asks for his help to locate Mark Ulyatt, a tutor at his old college at Melbourne University who has been missing for six weeks.
It's an intriguing plot but it's the local colour that creates a Jack Irish novel; the three ancient members of the Fitzroy Youth Club in the Prince of Prussia with their memories of the glory days of the Fitzroy Football Club and Charlie Taub, furniture maker, in whose workshop Irish finds peace and sanctuary. The delight of reading High Art eventually turns to reading despair as it ends abruptly with a body being discovered in a drain.
In an essay 'A Nice Place to do Crime', Temple writes of how he has tried to capture his affection of Australia and its people in his novels and to write Australian stories. The ideas for his books, he says, "take the form of images and the feelings that come with them". The first Jack Irish novel, for instance, was inspired by two lawyers drinking in a pub in inner city Melbourne. However, he hates plotting and waits for "the electrifying moment when the story wants to tell itself to me, when characters turn their face to me and speak".
Temple believes that "writing decent crime novels is a higher calling". Unlike literary novels, crime fiction has to entertain when "portraying the world at its darkest". His comments on fellow crime writers therefore make for interesting reading. He admires Chandler, Elmore Leonard and Margery Allingham and Conan Doyle's novels remain "a damn good read". However reading Agatha Christie is "like being trapped in the company of an aged thespian who turns what should be three-minute anecdotes into three-act plays", while John le Carre was "at his best as a writer when his mind was not on crusades against arms dealers, multinational drug companies and the new American world order".
The Red Hand is a treasure trove of wit and humour, capturing the essence of what it is to be an Australian, including a gem of rural noir in 'Missing in Cuffley'. Temple's legion of fans will enjoy the extra insights into Temple's thoughts and literary creativity, while regretting that Temple and his unforgettable characters are no more.
- The Red Hand: Stories, reflections and the last appearance of Jack Irish, by Peter Temple. Text, $32.99.