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Most crime novels tend to be set in big cities - particularly London or New York, places with reputations for serious crimes. Few are set in small out-of-the-way towns or villages and even fewer in Australia. Broken Shore suggests there's a good reason for that.
Joe Cashin is a homicide Detective who has fled from Melbourne back to his hometown following an incident which haunts him. When a local man is brutally attacked and killed Cashin investigates and starts to uncover a web of corruption and prejudice.
The Broken Shore is not what you would call an action-packed novel. Rather than focusing exclusively on the murder and the hunt for the guilty party, it turns the spotlight as much on small-town life and attitudes towards "outsiders". The plot meanders along and at times, the murder mystery almost seems to be forgotten, so intent is Jordan on providing an accurate backdrop against which to set his events. The police investigation becomes mired down in a bog of politics and dead-ends and often goes nowhere at all for a very long time. Sure, that's the reality of police work, with hours and hours spent on fruitless activity that will result (if you are lucky) in resolving the crime. The trouble is, true to life doesn't always make for very exciting reading.
This was one of those books where I got to around page 100 and realised that I was still waiting for anything of note to happen. Despite having read about a quarter of the book, I knew no more about the characters than I did at the start and virtually no progress had been made with the murder investigation. I kept plodding along with it, hoping that either the pace would pick up, or the reason for the slower pace would become obvious, but it never really did. It seemed to me that Peter Jordan could never quite decide whether he wanted The Broken Shore to be a study of small town life, a tale of official corruption and cover-ups or a straightforward murder mystery. In the end, it appeared to settle for being none of these.
Normally, I might welcome this slow pace. Whilst there is a lot of fun in breathless thrillers which race from one place to the next and are littered with dead bodies, there is also much to be said for slower novels which place as much emphasis on character development as plot elements. Unfortunately in this case, this was not a benefit either since almost to a man and woman, the characters in this book are unpleasant and unsympathetic. The main character is extremely hard to like; a cold emotionless shell of a man. Virtually everyone in the book is the same sterile, selfish or downright obnoxious. Frankly, if a large bomb had fallen on the town in which they all live, the overall quality of humanity would have been raised just that little bit.
I also didn't like the way Temple constantly referred to Cashin's past and the reason he is seeking refuge back in the place where he grew up. There were plenty of oblique references throughout the text, but it took an age to actually explain what had happened. I understand this can be a powerful narrative tool, piquing the reader's interest until it reaches breaking point and acting as a spur to keep them reading. However, the way it was handled in this novel felt as though Temple was gloating over the fact he knew things that you did not; rubbing your face in your ignorance and his cleverness. I know these sorts of things are subjective, but it was something which annoyed me a lot.
Temple overuses this "keep 'em in suspense" tactic elsewhere too and it is just as annoying. Indeed, at one point, there were so many elements being referred to about which I knew nothing that I began to wonder whether this book was actually part of a series and I'd mistakenly picked up one of the later books intended for existing readers who were already familiar with the character's back-story. In fact, this wasn't the case; it was just Jordan's writing style.
There are some extremely unsavoury elements to the plot as well, particularly with regard to the casual swearing and aggressive racism. I'm certainly no prude and there were no words in the book which I didn't know, but the frequency of the expletives and the nature in which many of them were delivered I found rather distasteful. Sure, you can argue that these are down-to-earth people and the book is reflecting the way such people actually talk, but it still became a bit much.
The same was true of the aggressive, overly-racist tone which permeates the book. Certainly, this is a core part of the plot and the tension between indigenous Australians and "settlers" is a crucial part of the book. Yet, at the same time - like the swearing - it was very in your face with all sorts of imaginative names being applied to anyone not purely white. I realise that such people exist and that racial tension remains a very serious issue, but if you were to believe this book, virtually everyone in Australia is a dyed-in-the-wool racist.
Finally, the book came across as very alien due to its unfamiliar setting in Australia. Obviously, this is mostly due to my ignorance of large parts of a country (and continent) which I have never visited, but Jordan also doesn't help the reader acquire the necessary background. His book is littered with Aussie slang terms totally unfamiliar to Western European/American ears and whilst some of them are easy to work out (mostly terms of abuse!) there were a few expressions which I really puzzled over and which didn't help the flow of the book.
On the plus side, Temple does employ a strong writing style. Chapters are kept short which ensures the book always at least remains readable, not matter how slow and turgid the plotting might be. His characters also speak in a very clipped, brusque manner. Dialogue usually consists of very short sentences - often not even full sentences. Whilst this style initially takes a bit of getting used to, you will find it perfectly suited to the style of the book. The reluctance of the characters to speak freely with one another or give anything away mirrors the dark secrets or hostilities many of them harbour.
The Broken Shore may have picked up lots of plaudits from the press and a smattering of literary awards, but I can't say I enjoyed it. The pedestrian plot, unlikeable characters and offensive undertones put me off. I don't think I'll be queuing up to buy another novel by Peter Temple any time soon.
(c) Copyright SWSt 2011