Posts Tagged ‘crime’

I’ve just read two of Peter Temple’s Jack Irish novels in one week (the result of some hasty decisions in my first go at borrowing e-books from my local library) so forgive the smell of whisky and all of the horse talk.

I jumped on the Jack Irish wagon a couple of months ago, taking Bad Debts on holiday with me, and it turned out to be perfectly suited to holiday reading. Not because the book’s light and fluffy, but because being on holiday meant I had long stretches of potential reading time that would be uninterrupted by trivial things such as a full-time job and eating. Once I had my hands on two more of these bad boys, trying to fit these novels in around a daily 7.5-hour commitment seemed like the closest thing to torture that the bookish middle classes might ever know. I began to regard going to work as an day-long impediment to my progress. They are read-while-you-brush-your-teeth kind of books (I’ve only just cleaned the toothpaste off my iPad). I almost got hit by a tram while reading them – it’s that kind of thing.

I liked these books much more than I liked Truth and The Broken Shore, and I liked those books a lot. This like has a lot to do with the bar-setting Jack Irish, probably the best thriller protagonist I have ever come across. Jack (or so I like to call him) is the son of a Fitzroy footballer; an ex-criminal lawyer with a honed palate, an interest in the horses and a logic-defying attachment to his Studebaker Lark. These days, Jack is a suburban solicitor, having lost the taste for criminal law after an ex-client shot and killed his wife. Yet a strong sense of story and justice remain entwined in him, such that he finds it difficult not to follow slightly unravelled threads.

Bad Debts opens with Jack traipsing around after a non-compliant debtor. It’s only his sometimes-job cleaning up various non-legal bits and pieces, so it’s irritating to say the least when the subject pulls a gun on him – or to be more specific, at his wedding tackle. Complain as you will about laconic Australian men in fiction, but Jack’s thoughts on this turn of events are wonderful and typical: ‘I looked at the pistol with concern. It had a distinctly Albanian cast to it. These things go off for motives of their own.’ How much more satisfying can you get than that, I ask you. He’s the proverbial cucumber under pressure, making little jokes and understating the situation by a factor of about seventy. Yet underneath this he’s arranging his way out of the mess, and the resolution surprises you as much as the hapless joe who ends up locked up in his own house (the logistics of this are beyond me, but I am confident that he would be able to pull it off).

To surmount the distinct disadvantage to likeability that being a lawyer usually proves, Jack Irish needs to be a superlatively sympathetic customer, and it’s almost ridiculous how good a character he is. Jack knows a lot of obscure shit. At one stage, he describes a woman’s face thus: ‘her mouth a perfect Ctesiphon curve of disgust.’ Believe me, I googled this and I still have no idea what he meant; yet I have no doubt he meant something very germane and specific. Okay, I’m basically in love with a fictional character. What of it? Temple is a genius at character; even the people who pop up for one or two pages are vividly drawn. These portraits comprise scalp-pricklingly good physical sketches (‘Harry’s wife was in her forties, sexy in a bush-hospital nurse way’) and a way with dialogue that seems to come from a lifelong interest in how people speak.

Key to the greatness of these books is Temple’s ability to convey a lot of information very efficiently, without exposition assuming the all-too-familiar form of drudgery. I would be hard pressed to find a sentence in any of these books that does not simultaneously deliver character and plot. This is a blessing, because all of Temple’s books that I have read are concerned with the tricky dealings of systemic corruption and rotted states. His almost-fixation on the malign impenetrability of corporate webs made up of shell companies with names like Hexiod Holdings and MassiBild warrants the exponential build-up of personages and circumstances that characterises these books, and he handles them well: it’s dizzying but graspable. That these three books deal with issues – bribery, sexual misdemeanour, police corruption – that still glare at us from broadsheets today makes them as resonant now as they would have been when they were published ten to fifteen years ago.

Those who have read these or seen the ABC’s adaptations of the first two books would know how much Melbourne features in them. Jack’s wide networks take him all over the joint, and his intimate connections with places and people give me pure and great joy as a local. I am astounded how often the ‘X city is a character in the novel’ point is still trotted out in book reviews, but it’s hard not to think along those lines here, as we’re not exactly talking postcard snapshots of Flinders Street Station. There’s this, as an example: ‘The Law Department at Melbourne University looks the way universities should. It has courtyards and cloisters and ivy. I loitered downstairs, near where a girl had set fire to herself during the Vietnam War. Nobody paid any attention to me.’ History, power, how it brings to bear on the individual (or doesn’t): that’s how Jack Irish thinks.

Bad Debts is the strongest of the bunch for me, because it gave me the first-time surprise and delight of discovering the complexity and drama in this man’s life. The book’s horseracing side-story (it seems crass to call it a subplot because it’s so integral to one’s understanding of Jack’s character) involving ex-jockey Harry Strang and his right-hand man Cam astounded and absorbed me, even though I have zero interest in the subject. (The racing strand continues, and is welcome, in the other two books, but it’s freshest in the first.) The pacing is perfect. The scale of the drama grows at a breathtaking rate. Jack makes tables and dazzles us with his cabinet-maker’s vocabulary. He drains bottle after bottle of wine that sounds vintage to this millennial reader’s ear. Just glorious.

In Black Tide, again Jack starts out at the small time, trying to collect favours from a small-time crim, but soon enough he finds he’s just at the start of a pretty big factual climb. This, the second of the books, is also pacy and enthralling but I missed Linda Hillier, Jack’s sparring/de facto investigative partner from Bad Debts. And in White Dog, where the scion of an old Melbourne family requests Jack defend her against a seemingly watertight murder charge, the power of the formula is once more slightly diluted – though it could be because I read the two books back to back and have for the moment surfeited upon a proliferation of names and political conspiracies. Still, they’re all damned good reads, and I’ll be saving the third one for my next holiday.

Thoughts before reading: It’s got a family tree. I hate books with family trees. If I can’t remember who the characters are, you’re not doing your job properly, Author. Is that a typo I see? This book looks dense. I guess I’ll just borrow this one from Maddie and see how it goes.

Thoughts at page 90: This is is quite good. Bit draft-ish, which is not surprising considering Larsson passed away just after handing in the manuscripts for publication. The characters are totally insane. I’ve always loved a heroine with her own odd sense of morality outside that imposed by society, and Lisbeth Salander is exactly that. Odd, attractive, with a penchant for slogan t-shirts (‘Armageddon was yesterday – today we have a serious problem’), mistreated by a government welfare system that doesn’t understand her and governed by her own fierce independent intelligence, Salander is such a sympathetic character. I like Mikael Blomkvist, too: a journalist down in the dumps after being found guilty of libel. But of course, Larsson shows the depth of his integrity by making him the author of a book on the incompetence of Swedish financial journalists. This will be a pretty good ride.

Page 194: Hilarious Apple computer fetish. ‘Unsurprisingly she set her sights on the best available alternative: the new Apple PowerBook G4/1.0 GHz in an aluminium case with a PowerP.C. 7451 processor with an AltiVec Velocity BlueTooth and built-in C.D. and D.V.D burners.’ Also, quaint punctuation.

Page 201: There’s a section explaining the Swedish government’s social welfare protection system, which Salander is subject to as someone under the social and psychiatric guardianship of the state. It’s oddly placed and reads like a footnote, but it’s fascinating. There’s no doubt what Larsson thinks: ‘Taking away a person’s control of her own life – meaning her bank account – is one of the greatest infringements a democracy can impose, especially when it applies to young people.’ It’s a sobering portrait of the weaknesses of the Scandinavian welfare states. Another thread that runs through the book is the cruelty of violence against women, represented through the vicious rape of Salander by someone who should be protecting her. Each part of the book begins with a statistic: ’18% of the women in Sweden have been threatened by a man’, and the original Swedish title of the book was ‘Women Who Hate Men’.

Page 470: Shit, what time is it? I can’t feel my legs.

Page 504: THIS IS AMAZING.

THE END: Nooooooooooo holy mother of Beatrice. That was SO GOOD. Bring on the next one.

Obviously, this is not my picture. It comes via. but it’s kind of a much better picture than the one I took and can’t upload because none of the three PCs at the house I’m currently staying at have bluetooth capacity. WTF? So it’s probably here for good, you guys. Learn to love.
While reading The Mystery of the Blue Train, I realised why I liked reading Agatha Christie books so much when I was younger: this book is full of odd, decent young women eager to be told nice things about themselves (3000 BOOKS: now with psychoanalysis!). And Aggie writes them as deserving of attention; Katherine Grey (guess what colour her eyes are) is a lady’s maid from St. Mary’s Mead, a gentle and empathetic soul who comes into quite a bit of money. Lady Tamplin, her rather distant and conniving cousin, invites the newly moneyed Katherine to the Riviera. On the luxurious Blue Train, Katherine meets Ruth Kettering, a wealthy and self-absorbed woman who takes Katherine into her confidence about her man troubles: she is in love with a dashing Count, but is still married to her playboy husband. But alas — in the morning, Ruth has been murdered.
Agatha, she is a pinnacle of verbal efficiency. Not a word in The Mystery of the Blue Train is unnecessary. And it’s so goddamn British: I think of old white men sitting in stuffed armchairs, reading this book and chortling to themselves while raising a glass of port to their pouchy lips. The thing is so easy to read and such a breezy pleasure. Excellent hangover fare. Even when I realised I’d seen a television adaptation of this book some time ago (about halfway through — not so impressive, really, my powers of remembrance), I stuck with it. What else can you do, faced with dialogue like this:
‘I was wondering,’ said Lady Tamplin, again drawing her artistically pencilled brows together, ‘whether–oh, good morning, Chubby darling: are you going to play tennis? How nice!’
Chubby, thus addressed, smiled kindly at her, remarked perfunctorily, ‘How topping you look in that peach-coloured thing,’ and drifted past them and down the steps.
Have you never read any of Agatha’s books? You really should, and if you take my advice, heed also this advice sub-item: read one of her Hercule Poirot mysteries. It’s been a long time since I read any Miss Marple books — I think I went through a phase when I was in high school — but Poirot resembles nothing so much as a big, clever, self-satisfied frog. Which is quite fitting, considering how tastefully his Frenchness is portrayed:
‘I ask myself,’ said Poirot, ‘I, Hercule Poirot’–he thumped himself dramatically on the chest–’ask myself why is M. Papopolous suddenly come to Nice?’

Repetition, emphatic italics, bad grammar, weird self-referencing hand action, first and therefore redundant third-person establishment of identity: ol’ Aggie would have won herself a goodly number of those 25-words-or-less promotional competitions, had she chosen to enter them. Edit: Quel embarrassment! Our friend Poirot is Belgian, not French. There goes my crap metaphor. Thanks to OUP Development Editor, Michelle, whose fact-checking skills almost reach the heights of her fondness for bananas.
It’s sad to end the review like this, but I must sound the Bad Ending Alarm. The final chapter is brief and ties up a couple of loose ends, but it’s more syrupy and sickening than the middle of a peppermint cream. I guess you can’t have it all.


My first introduction to Georges Simenon was a Paris Review interview; I usually avoid these long, intimate and revealing pieces, as they’re guaranteed to make me chase the works of the profiled author, and my bookshelf requests respite, sometimes. But who wouldn’t be intrigued by a man who wrote 60-80 pages a day? This copy of The Blue Room was a lucky find at one of the City Library’s biannual book sales, where most everything is one dollar. Scoop-ups a-plenty. It’s in rather nasty condition, clearly having been the victim of a spill, but c’est la vie. I don’t generally read crime fiction, but I do like the occasional television crime show. So I’m not averse to the genre per se; I’m just usually much more focused on literary fiction. I like crime shows because they’re ‘hard fluff’ – you get your easy-to-pigeonhole characters, your souped-up logic and of course your predictable cathartic denouement, which is what a girl sometimes needs after a long day of shoe shopping.

The Blue Room didn’t quite adhere to these expectations. A little more interesting than your local cop show, it’s set in Saint-Justin-du-Loup, one of the many hamlets and villages of rural France where residents often have known no other home in all their lives. It opens with a conversation between two lovers:

‘Have I hurt you?’
‘No.’
‘Are you angry with me?’
‘No.’

These memories are rendered as replay in Tony Falcone’s mind, endless undertow troubling him while he is being questioned by psychiatrists and court officials. We only find out slowly what the crime is, and though it’s a slow-burning question, the crime itself is not the prime target of Simenon’s gaze. The reader is given front-row seats to the spectacle of the suspect’s torment – after a nicety sought by the judge during questioning: ‘This endless wrangling over words!’ In response to a line of questioning that would be thrown out even in the laissez-faire world of the American crime television franchises, we have ‘Tony, staring blindly into the Judge’s face…trying desperately to understand, to explain.’

In France, the criminal justice system is inquisitorial (rather than adversarial, as in Australia or the UK), and the judge’s wide-ranging, erosive questioning is compounded by the condemnation of the townspeople, whose propinquity explains their quickness to judge. Simenon maintains the pressure of these comparisons, describing the judge as a man not unlike Tony, a man who even likes Tony for who he is. It’s a quiet book which easily evokes the burden of trial by small town, as mild as it is utterly bewildering.

The Blue Room defied my baseless expectations of crime novels, though, granted, I don’t read many of those. It wasn’t a dense read, and did quench my thirst for lighter fare. But rather than just focus on gore or extreme personalities, though the latter certainly feature in the book, Simenon invites us to interrogate our opinions on culpability and traces the relationship between thoughtlessness and expectation: can we be guilty for the passions of others?

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