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.