In the Evil Day
by Peter Temple
Published by Bantam Australia
444 pages, 2002
Buy it online
What do most people picture when they think of Australia?
A former convict colony in the southern hemisphere, the destination of every backpacker the world over intent on slaking his or her thirst for ice-cold beer?
Crocodile Dundee? The Sydney Opera House? Snakes?
Yes, crime writing hardly springs to mind when confronted with so many other distractions, but a rich heritage does exist. Beginning with the early days of colonial establishment, on through the eras of pulp and paperback publishing, to the explosion of this genre over the last 20 years, Australia has to be the most underestimated source of crime writing worldwide -- due, probably, to the dominance and sheer number of American and British writers who have long held sway in the field.
Easily the most successful Australian crime writer of recent years has been Peter Temple. A South African by birth, and a journalist by trade, Temple arrived in Sydney in 1980 before moving to Melbourne to edit Australian Society magazine. He then became the first senior lecturer in Editing and Publishing, playing an important role in establishing the prestigious Professional Writing and Editing course at Melbourne's RMIT University. In 1995, he became a self-employed editor and full-time writer.
Temple is best known for his Jack Irish books. Told through the eyes of the former solicitor who now walks the darker side of the street and splits his time between following horse racing and Australian Rules Football, Irish has become something of a Melbourne icon and has appeared in three books: Black Tide, Bad Debts and Dead Point, with an eagerly expected fourth in the series due out in the second half of 2002.
Temple has won three Ned Kelly Awards (the Australian equivalent of the Edgars) for Bad Debts (in 1996), the stand-alone novel Shooting Star (2000) and Dead Point (2001). But Temple's latest book, In the Evil Day, is very different from his previous Melbourne-based intrigues.
Despite the accolades a price has been paid, and the failure of his Australian publisher to secure an international market for this new novel, post-publication, has led to a bitter separation. A new publisher has recently been found -- the small yet highly successful and independent Text Publishing -- which should ensure that Temple's work becomes available to the rest of the world. And deservedly so. At present, only a handful of Australian crime writers enjoy a presence overseas, including another Text author, Shane Maloney (The Brush-off), and Marshall Browne (The Wooden Leg of Inspector Anders). Temple had been told his books were "too Australian" for the international market, but with In the Evil Day such an accusation does not survive scrutiny.
Temple has drawn upon his nomadic past and experiences to write In the Evil Day, an international drama that spans South Africa, Germany, America and England, with a climax in the wilds of rural Wales. Con Niemand is an ex-mercenary, a South African trained in the art of killing. He earns a living by doing security, running protection for wealthy South Africans who find themselves in a country gripped by lawlessness, still searching for stability post-apartheid. The sole survivor of a job gone wrong, Niemand comes into possession of a video showing American soldiers in an African village, a charnel landscape, where they are calmly dispatching survivors. Survivors of what, though? Niemand hasn't much time to contemplate that question before he's contacted by the tape's owners in London, and with dollar signs in his eyes he boards the next flight out of South Africa to return their property. But such is the importance of this tape that he unwittingly becomes the target of a deadly manhunt.
Switch to Hamburg, Germany, and meet John Anselm, a journalist piecing his life back together after being kidnapped in Beirut. His brain a shattered switchboard of half-memories, courtesy of a rifle butt to the skull from a captor, Anselm controls panic attacks by drinking. He earns a living through a shady but sophisticated electronic-surveillance agency whose clients require information on everything from errant wives to industrial espionage. Unaware of Niemand's situation and that they share dangerous knowledge, Anselm is employed to track the ex-mercenary's movements, until a series of violent events lead their paths to cross, just as the threat of an exhumed American foreign policy secret raises the stakes for all concerned.
In the Evil Day is a complete departure from Temple's previous books and easily his most ambitious work to date. It features a third-person, multilayered plot with a wide scope, which clearly shows Temple's ability to deal with moral issues in an intelligent manner. "I wanted to write something completely different," the author told me recently. "I think you can get bogged down in writing the same type of thing over and over again, and you need to challenge yourself. Unless you have faced up to the challenge of dealing with multiple narrative strands, I don't think you have tackled the real problem of writing. It is more difficult to maintain the balance, because [writing in the] first person doesn't have to have any balance. You have to find a way to move a story forward in a series of a narratives, which is difficult to do well."
Temple should not be concerned. What could have been a sprawling mess of a book is instead kept on a tight leash through incisive plotting and powerful, lean prose. This is the hallmark of Temple's writing: the sparse style, the diamond-pure clarity that comes from years of distilling words. He pumps more muscle in one paragraph than lesser writers muster in a page, a craft learned in the hothouse of journalism and developed through the influences of favorite crime writers such as Elmore Leonard (Tishomingo Blues).
Last year, Leonard wrote a piece for The New York Times' "Writers On Writing" series, in which that master of the black art of crime writing made some very telling points, one of which has special resonance: "Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip." This is quintessential Temple, and it's small wonder that when it comes to crime writers, he cites Leonard not as the peak but as the mountain.
"I think he is the master in his ability to capture speech patterns and to say a great deal through dialogue and to reveal character through dialogue," Temple says. "There is no one who comes near him. The man has a great ear. He can't do anything badly. Some books are less good, that's all. They are not without a moral center, not without intellectual content, either. They are interesting. He is always grappling with problems, except that he looks at it from the wrong side of the tracks."
This is not to say that Temple is some pale imitation of Leonard. Far from it. The humor that infects many of Temple's scenes is simply blacker, more laconic, distinctively Australian. "It was safe only to have your death recorded," reflects Anselm, on preserving anonymity in an age of cyber sleuthing. Temple also spends more time than Leonard does in developing setting. The Hamburg Anselm inhabits is drawn with strong references and local knowledge (Temple once edited a magazine in Hamburg, though he didn't speak the local language) -- in stark contrast to the fleeting glimpses of London we get as Niemand is pursued through England and on to Wales.
Anselm and Niemand battle with their own demons throughout this book, and as a result they make for wholly credible protagonists. Whilst Anselm attempts to remember much of his past by rattling around his ancestral home, Niemand's survival instincts are tested to the full. These two are supported by a wide cast of characters who possess, at their core, the same jaunty rhythm of clipped speech that Temple favors. Among the secondary players: Caroline Wishart, upper-class, English, a woman who failed at previous jobs and is now trying to be a journalist. Niemand approaches her with his tape, but she almost drowns in the cutthroat world of tabloid journalism before she finds enough resolve to pursue the story and provide a vital link between Anselm and Niemand. Also worth watching is O'Malley, an Australian. You are never really sure what he does or who he works for, but his exchanges with Anselm are intriguing and coated with a sinister black humor.
Violence usually has a shadowy presence in any crime book, and In the Evil Day is no exception. Temple is an extremely adept scene writer and his new book benefits from the smooth uncoiling of menace. You are immediately engaged, drawn in, pulse rising, as the choreographed carnage unfolds:
Niemand hit him in the head and chest with the chair before he had half turned, broke the chair back to pieces, hit him again with the back of the seat, more solid, caught him under the nose, knocked his head back.
But In the Evil Day is no cheap thriller. It is intelligent fiction woven around contemporary events, an examination of the consequences of foreign policy and what happens when damaged individuals, scratching through life, try to do the right thing. As Temple himself says, "To behave well when you are not a paragon of virtue is very hard."
Let us hope the change of publisher will enable the rest of the world to appreciate Australian crime writing's most well-kept secret. | April 2002
David Honeybone lives in Melbourne, Australia. He is the editor of Crime Factory magazine and runs the Crime Writers' Association of Australia. This is his first review for January Magazine. Honeybone recommends that readers outside of Australia who wish to purchase In the Evil Day contact Abbey's Books in Sydney.