Australia is the land down under, where summer is in the winter (or perhaps winter is in the summer) and water drains counter-clockwise. Australians and Americans, while sharing the same language, often seem to end up using those words in far different ways. But one thing that citizens of the two nations have in common is their love of the well-written mystery novel. THE BROKEN SHORE by Australian writer Peter Temple is far more than a great mystery novel --- it is a great novel, period.
Peter Temple is the author of eight previous crime novels and a five-time winner of the Ned Kelly Award, Australia's major prize for crime fiction. While his books have been published previously in the United States, THE BROKEN SHORE marks his first association with Farrar, Straus & Giroux, the publisher of many acclaimed writers. Temple fits well with a group that includes Scott Turow, Tom Wolfe, Jonathan Franzen and Richard Powers. Like those authors, Temple's writing extends beyond the milieu of his characters and his context. Audiences will find this to be an outstanding and riveting mystery novel, but Temple's ability with words makes it one that will stay with readers long after the final page has been turned.
Joe Cashin is a big-city homicide detective recovering from a work-related injury. His convalescence has returned him to the coastal area of South Australia where he was raised. His expertise is called upon by local authorities to investigate the robbery and beating death of Charles Bourgoyne, a wealthy and prominent resident of the community. Suspicion focuses on three aboriginal teenagers when they're apprehended attempting to sell some of the beaten man's property. Two of the suspects are shot and killed at the end of a police chase. It appears that the entire case will be closed, but Detective Cashin is unwilling to accept this outcome.
Cashin seems to be an Australian version of Harry Bosch, Michael Connelly's independent Los Angeles homicide detective. Like Bosch, Cashin is a complex man who can be both kind and irascible. The novel opens as Cashin befriends a "swaggie," an Australian homeless person whom he chooses not to arrest. Bosch listens to jazz to help him think, while Cashin uses opera scores for that purpose. Cashin is currently reading the novels of Joseph Conrad; he doesn't know why he has chosen Conrad, but something in the writer's background makes him the current author of choice for the detective. Cashin is a feisty cynic but at the same time can be sympathetic to society's underdogs. He is the police establishment's greatest fear, a man who will not accept the verdict of his police superiors that seeks to truncate an investigation before it has come to a just and complete conclusion.
Underlying the question of who shot Charles Bourgoyne are important topics: police corruption, racial politics and issues surrounding the all-too common clash between those favoring land development and those championing environmental concerns. Through it all, Temple paints a vivid and entertaining picture of complex characters in the land down under.
Some readers may find the Australian idioms somewhat confusing. Temple does include a glossary of terms in the back of the book; though helpful, it is not required to enjoy this brilliant work of literature. THE BROKEN SHORE is an unforgettable read that just may become one of the summer's big sensations.
Reviewed by Stuart Shiffman on December 23, 2010