An Iron Rose by Peter Temple
By way of opening, I make no apology for revisiting an old question: what makes a good “detective” novel. Not in the sense of a police procedural, you understand. In what I suppose is now the post-Golden Age, we seem to have entered a permanent grey area in which individuals who are neither serving police officers nor registered private inquiry agents solve crimes. In An Iron Rose by Peter Temple, we’ve got a “retired” police officer now making a living for himself as a blacksmith and factotum out in the Australian countryside — a veritable wilderness in which to wander for years.
You’ll notice I was careful to pose the question as referring to a “detective” novel. In US terms, this blurs into either or both the mystery and PI subgenres. The essence of all books of this type is for the protagonist to identify clues and so solve crimes, usually a homicide or two. This distinguishes thrillers which are more usually anticipatory books where the more heroic protagonist discovers a plot to kill the President or blow up the moon (see The Face by Jack Vance — sorry that’s cheating because it’s science fiction) and must defy the odds to prevent this terrible plot from reaching its intended conclusion. The emphasis is on page-turning excitement which generates tension in the reader. After a certain point, we all know who’s who in the good/bad stakes and, more often than not, the protagonist is the underdog. To achieve the required “thrills”, the emphasis is on the action with the hero regularly exposed to the risk of injury or death. As a result, the language used by the authors is less important. In “detective” books, the authors are free to indulge their delight in words and dabble in simile and metaphor as the mood takes them. More importantly, the rules of the genre allow them to go slow if the mood takes them that way.
In writing this review I’m forced to the admission this is a first. Although common sense tells all readers anyone can write a noir novel (except, perhaps, the Nepalese who are so far up the happiness index they probably don’t know what noir is), this is my first look at what’s legitimately to be classified as “authentic” Australian noir. The hero is a disgraced police officer. He was the case manager on a high-profile investigation into a drug distributor who was killed while under observation. He’s therefore scapegoated, i.e. he’s the victim of corruption in the police force. Fortunately, he has skills learned from his father to fall back on and can make his own way, avoiding further contact with the police and the politicians with their own less than honest agendas. This retreat into the more gentle pace of the countryside, its drinking culture and addiction to Australian Rules Football, is rudely shattered when his neighbour and his father’s best friend is found hanging. No-one who knew the man believes he would have committed suicide but, equally, no-one can suggest why anyone would have wanted to kill him. Reluctantly, he makes a few inquiries which leads him to a local institution tasked with helping young women who are in deemed in need of rehabilitation. The deceased worked there for a while in the 1980s and visited again shortly before his death. This seems more than a coincidence when our hero discovers some newspapers carefully preserved by the deceased which refer to the body of a young woman found in a mine shaft.
As a first-person narrative this is a wonderfully controlled piece of writing with some delightfully wry observations on those our hero meets. Ignoring the plot which, as you will rightly surmise, gets into some quite dark aspects of human behaviour, the quality of the prose alone makes the book worth reading. Add in the increasingly dangerous nature of the investigation and you have a really pleasing outcome as our hero unearths the deep roots of corruption and fights for truth, justice and the Australian way of playing football. My only problem with the book as presented to me is with the introduction which is wholly unnecessary and excessive in length. If there was going to be a eulogy included, it should have come as a short appreciation at the end of the book. My advice, therefore, is for everyone who enjoys great prose used in service of noir fiction to read the text of An Iron Rose by Peter Temple, but to pass over the introduction.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.