Having read and adored Peter Temple’s The Broken Shore a few weeks before my birthday, a friend gave me the first of Temple’s Jack Irish series: Bad Debts. And I have just emerged from the three-week long binge that resulted. All I could read was Jack Irish, and reaching the halfway point of a book, all I could think about is ensuring the next one was ready to go. Temple is an incredible writer, sparse and sharp, and the series is a fantastic Melbourne-flavoured variation on noir.
Consisting of Bad Debts, Black Tide, Dead Point and White Dog, Jack Irish is the classic lead with a moral compass and damaged past. He jokingly calls himself a regular suburban solicitor, but with a keen interest in horse racing and a talent for finding people who don’t want to be found, Jack is constantly finds himself beyond the bounds of regular upstanding society. Deliberately living a quiet life after an old client murdered his wife when he was a criminal barrister, Jack tries to focus on the things he loves: cabinet making, and supporting his endlessly hopeless footy team. But his particular talents lead him in different directions and we get whodunnits with cops, politicians, developers, sex, drugs, and gambling.
The difference in this series to other pieces of Temple’s writing for me is the humour. Perhaps amazingly for a knuckle-biting thriller, these books had me laughing out loud. The dry observations, dead-pan asides, the short and witty observations that had me doing a double take before I fully caught the joke. Temple manages a balance between the dark bitterness of Jack’s working world with the tongue-in-cheek Fitzroy Youth Club of old fellas at his watering hole; his sparring with his cabinet-making master, 12 years an apprentice with no end in sight; his internal monologue brief but full of self-deprecation as well as smarts. Considering the plot lines and subject matter of some of this stuff, Temple manages it so you do actually want to spend time in this world.
Perhaps also why I liked these books is because I like the main character. On top of greasing palms, winning bets, solving crimes, and writing leases, Jack reads, cooks, listens to good music, lives in a cool place in my town, and is whip-smart. He is also unpretentious; a man living his life, his wish to make sure the job gets done properly just sometimes leading him astray. Despite hours spent with him, he is still a character that you want to know more.
And oh, Temple’s writing. After waxing lyrical with a friend – another binger who has only recently discovered Temple’s work – she established just how his writing style was so special: no adjectives, no adverbs. This rule may sound a little black and white but the result is clear, sparse, and sharp; witty with lots of room, infused with meaning. I adore Temple’s writing style, it sometimes reminds me of the same joy I find in Helen Garner’s sentences. Perfectly structured and paced, acutely observed, shaved of all excess; but not stingy or bare, no emptiness.
If I had to find a complaint from the last three weeks of binge-reading, I might say that the second book, Black Tide, lulled a bit due to its incredible complexity but that’s a statement very lightly made and if anyone disagreed I’m sure I could be easily convinced otherwise. As a series it is particularly strong because each book stands alone with a unique and unpredictable plot, with Jack’s life a light through line providing both continuity and some delight.
I did not want to put down these books, and when I had to I could not wait to pick them up again. Jack Irish is one of the best crime fiction leads ever created and Temple is an absolute master of his art.