It was somewhat distressing to discover that Peter Temple has been active for years in Australia with nary a whisper in the United States. He has won three Ned Kelly awards for crime fiction, including one for BAD DEBTS as "Best First Novel." Indeed, with no slight to the other nominees that year, upon reading BAD DEBTS one can see why. It is a complex and richly told tale with a fascinating protagonist.
That protagonist is the wonderfully named Jack Irish, a rumpled knight with an enigmatic and fascinating backstory that undoubtedly will provide the impetus for many volumes in the years to come. Irish is what is known as a suburban solicitor, which means that he practices law in some way or another. He is not a shady character himself, though most of his friends and clients are, and the adage about lying down with dogs certainly holds true in Irish's case. His first marriage ended in divorce, and his second wife was murdered by one of his clients.
This resulted in Irish going on a functioning bender of a number of years' duration during which time he came close to losing his license to practice. As part therapy and part recreation, he assists a cabinetmaker and is also a fan of the local football club. Occasionally he is involved in the business end of horseracing with a former jockey named Harry Strang and his assistant, Cam Delray, an extremely capable gentleman who quietly and unobtrusively steals every passage in which he appears.
The impetus behind the novel is a telephone call that Irish receives from Danny McKillop, who claims to be one of Irish's former clients. Irish has no memory of the man or his case; when McKillop turns up dead in an unfortunate police confrontation before Irish can talk to him, it arouses Irish's curiosity. He is crestfallen to discover that he represented the man in what appeared to be a straightforward vehicular homicide case, occasioned by McKillop's intoxication, that resulted in McKillop's incarceration, from which he was only recently released.
Wondering if he could have done a better job on his former client's behalf, Irish begins to do some digging into McKillop's case and circumstances both before and after his release from prison. It soon develops that McKillop might have been a pawn in a clever plot that reaches to the uppermost levels of government. As Irish continues his thoughtful digging, he finds there are those who want the past to lay undisturbed and the present to remain unimpeded --- and are willing to do whatever must be done to ensure that matters continue as they have been.
American readers who are not well-versed in Australian ways will not get the gist of everything in BAD DEBTS, and some of the slang terms can be deciphered only within a carefully nuanced context. Temple, however, is such a master of his narrative that I think one is better served by plowing through any colloquial custom or expression that isn't understandable after two or three run-throughs and proceeding apace. I should note that Temple is also very funny, interspersing his dark passages with dry humor that matches the cleverness of his plotting and his characters. This is a welcome debut that will leave readers demanding more.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on December 22, 2010