The Broken Shore

Peter Temple
The Broken Shore
(Vintage Canada, 2008)

I read this book twice. The hero is a policeman who is intellectually honest, to his own detriment. I now know a new person, all of his panorama of subtleties, his thinking patterns, his ability to listen and then be brief, direct, no frills, nor histronics, just quiet bluntness and perhaps simply put he is an idealist in a homicide squad, the juxtapositions awkward, which gives the plot an added tension.

Much revolves around a stretch of sea coast with a gap which channels the rush of the sea:

They went to see it for the first time when he was six or seven, everyone had to see the Kettle and the Dangar Steps. Even standing well back from the crumbling edge of the keyhole, the scene scared him, the huge sea, the grey-green water skeined with foam, sliding, falling, surging, full of little peaks and breaks, hollows and rolls, the sense of unimaginable power beneath the surface, terrible forces that could lift you up and suck you down and spin you and you would breathe in icy salt water, swallow it, choke, the power of the surge would push you through the gap in the cliff and then it would slam you against the pocked walls in the Kettle, slam you and slam you until your clothes were threads and you were just tenderised meat. [p. 164]

Temple is a craftsman:

Cashin found the classical station. Piano. He was coming around to the classical piano — the quick-fingered tinkling, the dramas, the final notes that floated like the perfume of women you’d lusted after. Most of all, he liked the silences, the gaps between what had been and what was to come. [p. 189]

At the scene of a recent crime and a maid at the wealthy victim’s house offers the police hero coffee:

They sat on the steps in the still enclosure, an early winter morning, quiet, just birdsounds, cars on the highway, and a coarse tractor somewhere.

‘Jesus,’ said Carol, ‘I feel so, it’s just getting to me … I could make us some coffee.’

Cashin was tempted. ‘Better not,’ he said. ‘Can’t touch anything. They’d come down on me like a tanker of pigshit. But I’ll take a smoke off you.’

Weakness, smoking. Life was weakness, strength was the exception. Their smoke hung in sheets, golden where it caught the sun.

See Jack Batten’s review (below).

Breaks Rarely Endure in Peter Temple’s Tales

Suffering seems to go with the thriller territory — if an operative isn’t shot, stabbed or otherwise maimed, he’s probably not doing the job

Jack Batten

Not long after we meet John Anselm, the central character in Peter Temple’s brilliant thriller, Identity Theory, Anselm brings up the matter of his really bad hip and his worse knee. It’s a subject he can’t help dwelling on since both knee and hip give him the agonies of the damned. Years earlier, he spent 13 months chained to the wall in a damp Beirut basement where there was no room to extend his legs. Now he drinks and chain-smokes to blur the pain and the memory left by the months of a Hezbollah captive.

Apart from work — he’s in free enterprise espionage — Anselm keeps to himself these days, frozen in his solitude. He’s hard pressed to find anything in his existence that brings him joy, or even much of a reason to get on with his life.

In the world of thrillers, readers seldom find protagonists who are happy-go-lucky chaps. Suffering seems to go with the territory. If an operative isn’t shot, stabbed or otherwise maimed, he’s probably not doing the job. Nor are the afflictions exclusively physical. John le Carré’s George Smiley never got close to violence, but he was intimately acquainted with the misery of what passes for the home life of a counterspy.

Of all the writers of thrillers and crime novels, Peter Temple probably ranks as the maestro of suffering. Born in South Africa, where he spent his early years until the ugliness of apartheid drove him out, Temple lives and writes in Australia, where he sets most of his books (Identity Theory is an exception). Half of the Temple works are stand-alone thrillers, while the other half feature a gumshoe named Jack Irish, who is no stranger to nights of black dog and binge drinking. In Temple novels, this is every central character’s routine fate.

Along with the pained John Anselm, Identity Theory puts two other vividly drawn characters in the limelight, neither of them being exactly a bundle of laughs. Caroline Wishart is a young London newspaper reporter. Considered annoyingly naïve in the profession, she thinks she’s on to a scoop about international dirty tricks. Everything turns on a secret videotape. A second character, Con Niemond, is in possession of the tape. He’s a South African, a former mercenary with a sensitive side, which may be the death of him.

Anselm, meanwhile, works in Hamburg for a firm that specializes in ferreting out information on behalf of dodgy clients who want to learn confidential stuff at the highest levels. In the course of business, Anselm likewise circles in the direction of the tape. What none of the three — the journalist, the mercenary and the private sector spy — are aware of is that mysterious bad guys intend to kill everyone between them and the tape.

Gripping as the story is that Temple makes out of this plot and these characters, another of his new books, The Broken Shore, may be even more compelling. (Temple wrote both of the novels in the mid-2000s, but it’s only this spring a little late though still welcome, that the two have been published in Canada.)

The Broken Shore revolves around Joe Cashin, a cop in a coastal Australian town a couple of hours drive from Melbourne, where he once worked the homicide beat. Troubles that still haunt him drove Cashin out of Melbourne. What kind of troubles? Big troubles a guy never gets over. Where the troubles originated is left unanswered until near the end of the book. It’s enough for readers to understand that, as with other Temple principal figures, Joe Cashin has looked horror in the eye and is still blinking.

In the novel’s opening pages Cashin feels nauseated with fear. The fear turns out to be misplaced in this instance, but it’s an emotion that will make several return visits. A few pages further in, Cashin takes a mental inventory of his spine, hips and thighs. Just as he expected, the aches, which are close to crippling, haven’t gone away. Not long after that, he thinks of his 8-year-old son, the boy whose mother hasn’t allowed Cashin to visit in years.

Can things get any worse for Joe Cashin? Actually, yes, they can.

A very rich old guy, the patriarch in the town where Cashin handles whatever sleuthing is called for, gets murdered. Cops from a nearby larger town decide, on the slimmest evidence, that the killers are three Aborigine kids. As a running theme in the book, we learn much about Australia’s apparent treatment of Aborigines. If Temple is to be believed — why not? — the Aussie approach makes Canada’s handling of its native people seem the last work in enlightenment.

In arresting the three kids, the racist cops manage to kill two of them. This shocks the non-racist Cashin, in part because he thinks the evidence in the killing points in a different direction. He sets out to solve the case on his own, thereby making dangerous enemies of the other cops. But he presses on, taking himself and grateful readers through a story loaded with surprising developments, devious characters, moments of mordant humour and a conclusion that’s as untidy as it is realistic.

It’s some comfort to report that Cashin finds the love of a good woman in the course of events. So does John Anselm in Identity Theory. But we probably shouldn’t read too much into these turns for the better. In Peter Temple novels, the central characters rarely catch a break that endures.

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