I may forget the twists from Ian Rankin’s thrillers, but never the crepuscular gloom of his Edinburgh. The same goes for Denise Mina’s boozy, hard-bitten Glasgow, James Lee Burke’s comparatively bucolic Louisiana bayou, John Burdett’s steamy Bangkok, and George Pelecanos’ tragic Washington, D.C. The novels may be driven by plot, but they are grounded in a profound, even poetic, sense of place.
New to my list of memorable thriller locations: Peter Temple’s southern Australia. Little known in the United States but a major award winner Down Under, Temple writes mostly about Melbourne, a city blessed with weather that inspires ”introspective mediocrity and suicidal failure.” His latest novel to be published here, The Broken Shore, is set not in the metropolis itself but in the surrounding countryside, where the climate is every bit as dispiriting and the roads are ”smeared with roadkill — birds, foxes, rabbits, cats, rats, a young kangaroo with small arms outstretched.”
There’s no place like home, and world-weary big-city cop Joe Cashin (”With hindsight, I see most of my life as an error of judgment”) has returned to his family’s derelict farm to heal vague psychic and physical wounds. Drawing a paycheck from the local cop shop, Cashin enjoys chilling to Plácido Domingo, drinking beer, and walking his two ebullient ”black as liquorice” dogs. In this fictional Podunk town, he’s not sure who has ”the Grip” — ”the power to hurt…and to stop anyone hurting you” — and he doesn’t much care. Until, like just about every broken cop in the history of crime lit, he is forced to repair himself by taking on a dangerous new case.
And this one is a whopper. A prominent local citizen is flogged with a bamboo stick, bashed on the head, and left for dead in a house that smells of vinegar. From a single corpse, Temple spins a complicated mystery that eventually encompasses racial tensions, scumbag cops, drugs, a grandstanding aborigine politician, stomach-turning sexual abuse, and rapacious developers. There’s also a stock romance with a pretty lawyer for Cashin, some thorny family history, and a lot of snappy banter with a gay café owner.
Flinty, funny, subtle, and smart, The Broken Shore sags under the burden of a few too many narrative complications and, like many a top-drawer mystery, collapses toward the end, as the haunting questions, so elegantly posed, are suddenly and a little awkwardly answered. But this is a hazard of the genre, and Temple ranks among its very best practitioners. B+