Whenever a self-professed ‘literary’ reader asks me what I study at University, more often than not, I lie to them. This is not because I am ashamed of studying creative writing, but more because I always fear their next question: ‘What do you write about?’
‘I write about Australian life,’ I always tell them. ‘A lot of it is set out in rural areas; you know, big wide-open spaces. Sometimes there is criminal activity, or a police element, but none of that stuff is ever the central focus.’
‘Criminal activity?’ They will say. ‘Police? Oh, you’re a crime writer!’ This is always the point where they let out a little laugh and give me a sly, knowing nod. ‘Not exactly,’ I try to explain, but further comments always seem to fall on deaf ears.
I have been categorised, labelled, and relegated to the budget dump-bin schlock you can find out the front of your local bookshop. Writing that has any association with crime is apparently ‘genre’ writing to a large number of the reading public, and in a world of trendy zeitgeist authors such as Jonathon Franzen, Miranda July, and Jonathon Safran Foer, who honestly has time for such tripe?
Well, I have plenty of time for such writing. In fact, I would argue that Australia has a ‘crime’ writer who can not only go up against the literary heavyweights, but can also outplay them in regards to prose, style, storytelling, and characterisation. This writer’s name is Peter Temple, and, despite winning a myriad of awards, many of you have probably never read his work. This honestly makes me a little sad, but I can’t blame you. Because of the subject matter of his writing, Temple’s work is often relegated to the dank corners of bookshops – his novels rarely appearing side by side with other Australian greats like Tim Winton or David Malouf.
Though his latest novel Truth is his most critically lauded (it won the 2010 Miles Franklin award), The Broken Shore is arguably Temple’s greatest novel. In all honesty, it’s a little bit hard to read at first, but this is because the prose isn’t quite what you would expect from a book about a damaged cop investigating a murder in a small Australian town. The style isn’t simplistic, pandering, or generic; in fact, it is undeniably poetic in its staccato cadence.
Cashin walked around the hill, into the wind from the sea. It was cold, late autumn, last glowing leaves clinging to the liquidambars and maples his great-grandfather’s brother had planted, their surrender close.
Though some may see similarities between such minimalist prose and the hard-boiled crime writing of yesteryear, Temple does not use his clipped prose to express masculine aggression, but rather emotion and delicate characterisation. Because of this, the style of The Broken Shore ultimately creates an aesthetic of muted sadness, and never really approaches the traditional tough guy posturing that can be found in quite a lot of ‘crime’ writing.
The Broken Shore isn’t afraid to touch on social themes either, the narrative flirting with ideas of racism, Indigenous rights, social class, and environmentalism. Normally, such lofty concepts are the domain of ‘serious’ writing, but Temple takes the themes in his stride – the bigger issues painted in the same brush as the sections of police procedure. With The Broken Shore, Temple intentionally touches on something greater than the immediate events of the narrative, but still understands what makes a good read: strong plot, interesting characters, and high tension situations that are designed to keep you turning pages.
Some may find the clipped prose and grizzled characters of The Broken Shore to be somewhat cliché at first, but my advice is to persevere. Ultimately, this is a beautiful book about redemption and justice; it is a book that defies expectations, and ultimately transcends the limits of its narrative scope through Temple’s astute characterisation and confident approach to theme. I personally wish that when people thought of ‘crime’ writing, their first thought would be of Temple’s novel; not only so I could perhaps be honest and possibly proud of my own writing, but also so that others may stop themselves from limiting that which they may enjoy, all because of silly ideas about what is ‘genre’ and what is ‘literature’.