Books October 2011

Down Underworld

The brilliant foreignness of Australian crime fiction
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Jesse Lenz

It is a rare crime novel that doesn’t seem better in the first part, when we are still trying to find our bearings. Perhaps we want to feel the way we did as children, when the genre was so much more thrilling for being slightly over our heads. This is the good thing about Australian crime fiction: as an American, you are never completely at home in it. True, the suburban backdrops appear very familiar, and on the printed page the Australian variant of English is almost identical to our own. But the characters in these novels behave much more differently from Americans than do the Swedes in those Stieg Larsson books, and this never stops feeling odd. Among male friends an intensity of joshing camaraderie is in evidence that even our frat boys would find stifling. At first I chalked this up to over-imitation of Hollywood films, only to read in The Oxford Companion to Australian Literature that the Sunburnt Country has a true-life tradition of especially tight-knit “mateship.” Not for nothing did Australian prisoners in Japanese POW camps survive at a higher rate than American ones. Most other characters in these novels interact with a reflexive prickliness, and that includes husbands and wives; there is a constant effect of chips on shoulders. Stephen Knight, the leading expert on his country’s crime fiction, talks of “drily aggressive wit” without explaining the aggression itself.

Crime fiction being largely a matter of people answering doorbells, the reader soon notices that the Australians are none too keen on their police. Rich, poor, middle-class, everybody talks back. In Garry Disher’s The Dragon Man (1999), a policeman remembers how party guests “cringed comically” when he was introduced. “Just once would he like to see approval or interest or curiosity on someone’s face when he told them that he was a copper.” Australians I have talked to about this strain in the public character attribute it, with varying emphasis, to three main causes: the nation’s convict origins, the heavy-handedness of the goldfield constabulary in the 19th century, and the brazen corruption for which Sydney’s finest were notorious until well into the 1990s.

Whatever the reasons for it, the popular mistrust of law enforcement gives the country’s crime stories a distinctive feel. Animal Kingdom (2010), to take a cinematic example, treats the unreliability of almost the entire Victoria Police as a given. (Victoria is the state on the southeast coast of which Melbourne is the capital.) It says a lot about the difference between our two countries that a line spoken in the film by a beaming gangster matriarch to a corrupt officer—“You’ve done some bad things, sweetie”—has resonated in Australia the way Clint Eastwood’s “Make my day” once did in the United States. But an aversion to the police is not the same thing as moral relativism. On the back cover of a new British true-crime book about a serial rapist is praise for the author’s “intelligent refusal to judge”; I expect the average Australian would react to that blurb much as I did. In a recent interview, the Sydneyside novelist Michael Duffy said that readers “like to finish a book knowing that evil was put right.” The Australians are simply more inclined than we are to doubt that law and morality are on the same side.

For a long time, therefore, they preferred “zero detection” crime stories, in which the case more or less solved itself through a chain of events. It was only quite recently, and under the influence of American television serials, that they began warming to the cop hero at all. Even now, Australian writers make more effort to elicit support for the detective than do their British or American counterparts, who can more or less take it for granted. Unfortunately this comes with its own formulas. The lead should be something of a rebel himself (preferably Irish, according to Knight), and the crime under investigation especially heinous. Horrible things seem to happen to children even more often than in our own narratives.

The number of Australian crime writers working in all possible subgenres is remarkable—all the more so in view of the fact that most write for an exclusively domestic audience. They appear perfectly happy to do so. One finds no trace of that subservience to the rest of the Anglophone world, the so-called cultural cringe, for which the country used to criticize itself. Even the few novelists with an international reputation, like Garry Disher and Peter Corris, give no special thought to the foreign reader. If they did, they would be less stingy with local color, something their countrymen are obviously not clamoring for more of. After a dozen or so novels set in Melbourne, I know which neighborhoods to avoid, yet I still couldn’t pick the city out of a lineup. I have a better idea of the sights, sounds, and smells of Sydney, or at least its red-light district, thanks to the generous detail in Mark Dapin’s comic novel, King of the Cross (2009)—but then, Dapin is a transplanted Briton. How to Write Crime (1996), an Australian primer edited by the novelist Marele Day, has conspicuously little to say on evoking locations. Could this be a reaction against the once-common practice, lamented in the same book, of trying to lure foreign readers with exotic touches? Or are the population centers really as suburban-dull as local intellectuals have made them out to be? A character in a Barry Oakley play describes the country as “a million backyards laid end to end.” If The Dictionary of Australian Quotations is anything to go by, Melbourne has come in for more abuse from resident literati than any other city in the world, with the possible exception of Vienna.

Place is not the only thing that crime writers Down Under are reluctant to describe in detail. Like their counterparts around the world, they have spent the past decade or two cutting back on narrative prose, which in Australia was never all that lush or flowery to begin with. Corris, whose best seller The Empty Beach (1983) is said to have liberated local crime fiction from the imitation of foreign models, has always written a tastefully unobtrusive prose that one would never read for its own sake. The same goes for Disher’s work, though here the terseness often draws attention to itself. An excerpt from The Dragon Man:

She unbuckled his belt. He groaned. He was so hungry for her. Afterwards he said, “Did you sleep all right last night?”

It’s hard not to flinch inwardly as the third sentence flows right into the fourth; I remember when even the toughest writers observed the postcoital paragraph break. The above is of course an extreme example (by Disher’s standards too), and yet the average skimpy paragraph that now links one conversation to another—in Australian crime fiction as in ours—offers little more in the way of reading pleasure. “I’ll bet you don’t skip dialogue,” Elmore Leonard says. I’ll bet you don’t buy books for it, either. If the novel is to survive in this distracted digital age, it must do more, not less, of what only the novel can do.

How like the Australians to name their top crime-fiction prize after their most famous criminal—although according to Ian Jones’s classic biography, the armored bushranger’s own tastes ran to stuff like Lorna Doone. No fewer than five Ned Kelly Awards have gone to Peter Temple, a naturalized Australian born in South Africa in 1946. There are in effect two Peter Temples, one who writes sleuth-type thrillers in the Corris-Disher tradition and another who writes police procedurals in a style all his own. The latter Temple is much more interesting, even if the style in question is as annoying on a first acquaintance as Henry Green’s. The following excerpt comes from The Broken Shore (2005). Cashin is a policeman who must convalesce in a seaside town after being rammed by a drug lord’s car in nearby Melbourne.

It was darkening when Cashin reached home, the wind ruffling the

trees on the hill, strumming the corrugated iron roof. He got the fire going, took out a six-pack of Carlsberg, put on L’elisir d’amore, Donizetti, sank into the old chair, cushion in the small of his back. Tired in the trunk, hurting in the pelvis, pains down his legs, he swallowed two aspirins with the first swig of beer.

It is a bit too obvious that all this could be said more naturally; just an and here and there would work wonders. Temple clearly wants to have things both ways—to give that tough, pared-back feel so prized today, while still paying heed to Thomas Mann’s dictum that only the thorough is truly entertaining. Understanding does not mean liking, of course, and the thought of enduring that rhythmic monotony for hundreds of pages is a daunting one.

But Cashin is too likable a protagonist for the reader not to want to stick around. At the very beginning he leaves home to answer an urgent call, his two poodles (unclipped, unlike the prose) going along for the ride. At the house of the woman who called, he gets an Australian reception.

“Cop?” she said. She had dirty grey hair around a face cut from a hard wood with a blunt tool.

Cashin nodded.

“The uniform and that?”

“Plainclothes,” he said. He produced the Victoria Police badge with the emblem that looked like a fox. She took off her smudged glasses to study it.

“Them police dogs?” she said.

He looked back. Two woolly black heads in the same window.

“They work with the police,” he said.

The reader who is not won over to Cashin right there will be, after a chapter or two. One succumbs just as quickly to the off-season seaside location, the sad, austere mood of which suffuses the whole book. Perhaps the effect is greater on those of us whose Australia is still an imagined one, shaped by classic books and films about the bush: Voss, Kangaroo, Picnic at Hanging Rock. Though the settings in The Broken Shore are more familiar, one can never quite forget that eerie continent stretching away behind everything.

I won’t divulge the story except to say that a well-respected white man is brutally attacked, and almost at once three Aboriginal boys come under suspicion. Journalists, police officials, politicians, and even environmentalists descend on the town, giving the author (a former journalist himself) ample opportunity to demonstrate his ear for all sociolects. Twists ensue, of course; the story is involving enough that after a while even the elliptical prose ceases to annoy. One starts to see the good side of cramming sharp images and fresh turns of phrase into just a few lines here and there. As Cashin walks through a long hospital room to the soft hum of medical machines, we get a startlingly fresh metaphor: “It came to him that a nuclear submarine would be like this, lying in a freezing ocean trench, hushed, run by electronics.” The lonely cop’s poodles are a recurring motif but never overused. Temple treats them quite literally as companion animals, with whole lives of their own. On the beach, they “study” an angrily yapping dog, their tails moving “in slow, interested scientific wags.” The following scene is a touching one; I almost wish the novel had ended on it.

The dogs went with him, down the slope, even blacker against the sere grass. They trotted along happily. Then they stopped, turned, dark eyes on Cashin sitting on the bricks.

Rebb marched on, hands in his pockets, head down, shoulders sloped.

The dogs were torn.

Cashin wanted to tell them to go with Rebb, to say to them, You faithless things, I took you in, I saved you, you’d be in a concrete backyard now, knee-deep in your own droppings … But I was only ever a meal-ticket and a soft bed, legs to lie on.

So go. Fuck off. Go.

The dogs bounded back to him, the lovely bouncing run, the ears afloat.

Crime-fiction buffs are perhaps America’s least parochial readers. They certainly seem to be the only ones still buying imported and even translated novels in large numbers. All the same, I doubt if Peter Temple can catch on in the United States to the extent that Henning Mankell and the other Scandinavians have done. Many Americans of both sexes will likely be put off by the relentless maleness of his work. By this I don’t mean the mere predominance of masculine characters, which in itself need not bar anyone from enjoying it. One of the miracles of good writing is that it can take something a reader would just as soon steer clear of in real life, and transform it into something he can attend to with sympathetic, even affectionate, interest. Like this:

“I hear someone punched out that cunt Derry Callahan,” he said. “Stole a can of dog food too. You blokes investigatin that?”

Cashin frowned. “That right? No complaint that I know of. When it happens, we’ll pull out all the stops. Door-to-door. Manhunt.”

“Let’s see your hand.”

“Let’s see your dick.”

“C’mon. Hiding somethin?”

“Fuck off.”

Bern laughed, delighted, punched Cashin’s upper arm. “You fuckin violent bastard.”

I grinned right along with that, as if I hadn’t left high school hoping never to have to hear such exchanges again. James Jones works much the same kind of magic in his depiction of barracks life in From Here to Eternity, but not without showing the hellishly constricting nature of male society as well. The hero Prew goes his own way, ignoring even his best friends’ calls to box for their company. In believing that the manliest thing is to be true to oneself and not the group, any group, Jones was very much an American writer.

Temple is no less an Australian one, despite having spent his formative years in white South Africa (which is a culture close to Australia’s in any case). Portraying the force as the ultimate band of brothers may be the only way to sell police procedurals Down Under, but the author’s work bespeaks a sincere admiration for the cops’ mateship-under-pressure. This is perhaps less obvious in The Broken Shore, with its convalescent hero and sparsely peopled location, than in the author’s latest novel, Truth (2009). My British paperback edition starts with a beautiful quote from, of all people, Rainer Maria Rilke, in regard to whom Stefan Zweig said, “Anything strongly masculine caused him an almost physical discomfort.” The central character this time is Inspector Stephen Villani, head of the Victoria Police Homicide Squad, who is investigating a murder in a luxury Melbourne high-rise. I should point out here that class animosity is another of Australian crime fiction’s distinguishing characteristics; the obligatory scenes of the sleuth or inspector being shown into affluent surroundings tend to be handled more sourly than the American reader is used to.

“We take a holistic view of the world,” Villani says. “The whole foul thing.” The book certainly paints a bleak Melbourne, which in the real world too is struggling with organized crime. (“Not since the days of Al Capone … have gangsters so brazenly lorded it over a world city,” the journalist Bob Bottom wrote in Melbourne’s daily The Age in 2004; and violent crime has risen since then.) Like Cashin in the earlier novel, the inspector acknowledges the problem of police corruption without considering it all that important in the great moral scheme of things. He certainly feels no less esprit de corps because of it. Cops must just look out for each other, try to keep each other clean. We learn that when Villani was up to his neck in gambling debt, a colleague lent him $30,000. When he tried to repay? “Please, mate, no. Long forgotten.” Male friendship is contrasted throughout Truth with the tenuous bonds of mere family; the inspector’s wife and teenage daughter betray him, as he has betrayed them. You can trust only your mates. That may ring true for many readers, but the novel’s title raises expectations for something a little deeper.

In John le Carré’s work, the spy is a thinking individual first and a team player second. With Temple’s cop heroes, flashbacks stand in for introspection, and most memories are of yet more male-bonding episodes: cop-boss, cop-colleague, father-son. In place of moral conflict, we get the hero’s self-reproach for not having “been there” enough for so-and-so. The tough narratorial perspective seems almost to pride itself on letting in so little of the world. One longs for an intelligent female character to come along and challenge everything. Unfortunately the women in Truth are either unpleasant or peripheral, while Cashin’s love interest in The Broken Shore gets less space than the “swaggie,” or transient, who helps him build a fence. No writer would squander his female characters in such a way if he felt any critical distance from the male ones.

In short, if Peter Temple is a poet of modern crime fiction, he is a Georgian one, putting his gifts of observation and expression in the service of a less than personal worldview. One begins to understand why some Australians have attacked the myth of mateship; it really does appear to exact a measure of conventionality from the faithful. As the late public intellectual Donald Horne complained, “In a sense mateship was a protection against individualism,” carrying the “extended meaning [that] we are all the same.” This meaning is hostile to literature, which may be why Temple’s work, unlike le Carré’s best, never quite transcends its genre.

But sharing the same language does not give us license to criticize an Australian—certainly not one writing about and for his compatriots—as if he were an American. It would be especially silly to fault him for being so wholly of his adopted homeland, especially if our craving for cultural difference (that increasingly rare thing) is what drew us to him in the first place. A “refusal to judge” is not the answer. We must judge, as Dean Inge said in defiance of Christ himself, and that goes for the good and bad in literature too. I would still rather read Temple as he is than wish him into a less strange, less foreign writer.

B. R. Myers is an Atlantic contributing editor and the author of A Reader’s Manifesto (2002).
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