Keith's Reviews > The Broken Shore

The Broken Shore by Peter Temple
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Apr 23, 2012

it was amazing
Read from April 23 to 29, 2012

Unbroken Excellence

Some crime writers are very obvious: there's a crime, an investigator, a criminal and finally a solution that includes a resolution. The prose takes you along briskly with perhaps some incidental commentary on society or the immediate environment in which the story is taking place. The investigator is brave, wry, cynical.

Then there are crime writers who are not obvious, but tangential: the originating crime is perhaps minor, the criminal is unclear, the solution doesn't really offer a resolution. And the investigator is uncertain, not brave, and not particularly cynical. The story emerges piece by piece, because the investigator is dogged and shrewd and is good at pattern recognition. Martin Cruz Smith with his Arkady Renko books has been, for me, the chief architect of this type of crime novel. But there are times, as in Wolves Eat Dogs, when it's hard to know exactly what has happened - the storytelling is so tangential as to be obscure. You have the sense that you're reading something good, even excellent, but you also think you must have missed something and have to go back to check up.

Peter Temple's The Broken Shore is another first-rate entrant into this sub-genre, with a style that is also tangential in the way it accumulates detail but is crystal clear in its use of imagery, character and dialogue.

Joe Cashin is a Senior Detective in Port Munro, a small town in Australia. He's recovering from injuries received during a police operation that went wrong and is only recently back on duty. As is requisite in a crime novel, there is a murder which he begins to investigate. Initially some young aborigines are blamed but as the novel progresses Cashin begins to doubt their guilt and as he picks away at the people connected to the case another, larger, crime emerges.

Temple's structural strategy is to involve us completely in Cashin's day-to-day life. We first see him walking his dogs, then answering a local police call-out where a neighbour thinks there's a burglar in a shed. We're constantly engaged with Cashin's presence - his relationship with his two dogs, with his family, with the house that he begins to rebuild. As a result of this, we see the world from his perspective. We don't go into his consciousness as we do with Coben's characters - the close third person point-of-view - but we don't have any perspective but his to judge this world by. So, for example, character descriptions given by the author may as well be the perceptions of Cashin himself:

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

Bern cleared his throat and spat, bullethole lips, a sound like a peashooter.

Temple's style emphasizes how we're expected to see things through Cashin's eyes in its blunt, bleak appraisal of the natural world:

"He walked over the hill and down the slope, the dogs ahead, dead black and light-absorbing, heads down, quick legs, coursing, disturbing the leaf mulch. On the levelling ground, on the fringe of the clearing, a hare took off. He watched the three cross the open space, black dogs and hare, the hare pacing itself perfectly, jinking when it felt the dogs near. It seemed to be pulling the dogs on a string. They vanished into the trees above the creek."

His sentences are often sequences of brief observations, as here: 'the dogs ahead, dead black and light-absorbing, heads down, quick legs, coursing, disturbing the leaf mulch.' It's as though Cashin is registering what's in front of him and Temple is simply recording the observations as they accrue. The frequent lack of connecting pronouns or even verbs emphasizes this sense of images flickering before him:

"The door opened. A thin man, late twenties. He moved his legs out, open flannel shirt over a teeshirt, no shoes, hole in a red sock, one leg in his denims, stood in the weeds to pull them up, zip."

This puts us very much in the present with Cashin, and Temple is then able to manoeuver us wherever Cashin goes without having to explain his thought processes. For example, if there were a 'distance' between us and Cashin's consciousness, the author might feel obliged to explain - in an author's objective voice - why Cashin does what he does: 'Cashin thought ... '; 'Cashin wanted to talk to [suspect A] again ... '

Michael Connolly uses this device in his Harry Bosch books, using the formula, 'Bosch knew ... ' In this way Connolly gives us a rationale for his hero's actions - we understand what he's doing because of what Harry knows or thinks: 'Bosch knew that [suspect A] lived up in the Hollywood Hills, so that morning he drove up ... ' Temple doesn't give us this kind of linking logic. Frequently a chapter begins with Cashin having already arrived somewhere:

AT THE station, Carl Wexler came out of the front door making flexing bodybuilder’s movements.
THEY WALKED around the western side of the house, through the long grass, dogs ahead, jumping up, hanging stiff-legged in the misty air, hoping to see a rabbit.
CASHIN SAT at a pavement table. ‘You heard this when?’ he said.

There's no explanation for why Cashin is in any of these places - he just is, and we're with him. Of course this is a common novelistic tactic to disarm the reader and make her do a bit of work at the beginning of a chapter; but with Temple it becomes a trope used to keep us close to Cashin and his own experience of his world. We don't need to know why Cashin is in this place - it will become evident anyway. So we read on in order to find out why.

This focus on what's in front of Cashin also enables Temple to tell his story in the tangential way that I mentioned before. There is no 'set-up', no artificial tension-building by cutting away to sub-plots or other characters. Events are revealed to Cashin as they happen - and so they are revealed to the reader at the same time, and with the same sense of shock and surprise. We feel tense as they happen not because we've been led to anticipate that something is going to take place, and we're therefore worried, but precisely because we're not expecting anything to happen. The concluding set-piece, for example, is completely unexpected because it hasn't been trailed or foreshadowed. It is all the more harrowing for that, though it does depend on Temple writing his action scenes with immediacy and a level of realism that puts us into the scene. Thankfully, he's up to the task and we fear for Cashin as the denouement plays out. Like him, we're not entirely sure what's happening but that only adds to the sense of reality.

It wouldn't be right to discuss the book and not mention the dialogue. The dialogue in most crime novels falls into one of two camps - it's either functional, passing on information between characters and therefore to us; or there's a good deal of conflict between characters with different objectives, and that's reflected in the dialogue. Temple's dialogue manages to be true to character, filled with information and redolent of conflict too:

"Cashin sighed as loudly as he could. ‘Been through that with you, Mrs Addison. This is about a murder. I’ll come around with the warrant, we’ll take away all your files.’
A counter-sigh. ‘Not at my fingertips this information. Mrs McKendrick will ring.’
‘Inside ten minutes, please, Mrs Addison.’
‘Oh, right. Galvanised now, are we? It took the third dead boy and Bobby Walshe.’
‘I look forward to hearing from Mrs McKendrick. Very soon. Who was Mr McKendrick?’
‘She lost him in Malaya in the fifties. Tailgunner in a Lincoln.’
‘A man going forward while looking back,’ said Cashin. ‘I know that feeling.’
‘In this case, falling forward. Off a hotel balcony. Pissed as a parrot, excuse the expression.’
‘I’m shocked.’"

The formality of 'Mrs Addison' emphasizes Cashin's authority here, even though we've seen him talking amicably enough with her before. But then the tension in the conversation is disarmed by his enquiry about who Mr McKendrick was. The answer inspires Cashin's musing that he knows what it's like to be a man going forward while looking back. And finally, the comedy of the man actually falling off a balcony, not shot down in his plane. So the conversation goes through several stages in the course of half a dozen interchanges.

Throughout the book, Temple's dialogue is alive to nuance, comedy, threat and the use of particular Australian phrasing:

"‘Anyway, it’s academic,’ Dove said. ‘Hopgood’s right. Bobby Walshe’s made them go soft-cock on this. First it’s bail, next they drop the charges.'"

"Star posts were lying along the line of the new fence. In the middle was another strainer post.
‘Bern give you a hand?’ said Cashin.
‘Didn’t need a hand. Not much of a fence.’
‘By my standards, it’s much of a fence. What now?’
‘Get the stars in. Line em up.’
‘We’ll need string.’
‘Don’t need string. Eye’s good enough.’
‘My eye?’
‘Any prick’s eye.’"

The dialogue, like the whole of the book, expects the reader to keep up, to follow the logic, to see what's important and to appreciate the ebb and flow of emotional current between the characters. We're not spoon-fed descriptions of characters, situations, the natural world - instead, imagery is used to delineate the impact these elements have upon the guiding consciousness, Cashin. We see, feel and appreciate the world as he does, through the precise use of metaphor, simile and dialogue. And as a result we're caught up in a world that is strange to us but at the same time recognizable because the language has made it familiar, and part of our world.
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