Lauded crime writer Peter Temple, 66, best known for his Jack Irish novels set in the underworld of Melbourne, has never been a fan of editors. An
ex- journalist, he went on to teach aspiring cadets before setting himself to writing novels at the tender age of 50.
“I don’t get edited much at all. I never have,” he reveals. “I can’t bear it, for a start. I usually make a big fuss and act up. After a while they say, ‘All right, all right, leave it in’. Of course, I’m always very grateful when they save me from my own stupidity.”
Unleashing a deep-seated belly chuckle, there’s no doubting the truth to his observations, but there’s a slab of hearty humour included. He’s got the chops to carry it off, too. With nine novels to his name, Temple has scored no fewer than five Ned Kelly Awards, Australia’s pre-eminent crime-writing gong. He also became the first Australian to win the Duncan Lawrie Dagger (formerly known as Gold Dagger), the world’s richest crime fiction prize, from the UK Crime Writers’ Association in 2007.
When he won the prestigious Miles Franklin Award for the non-Jack Irish book Truth in 2010, however, it was a case of a crime fiction novelist playing in the literary greats’ sandpit that ruffled a few feathers.
“I’ve never been much for thinking about genre – if you like a book, you like it,” Temple says. “I’m concerned with the quality of the writing. You’d hate to think something would be disqualified because it obeyed some genre conventions.”
It wasn’t just the snobs who were shocked; some of his cohorts said he shouldn’t want to be a part of that world. “It was a brave thing for the judges to do, and in a way it made my life a lot more difficult because they are hard acts to follow, those things,” he says. “I’ve been admitted to a club that should never have allowed me through the door.”
After many years of near-misses, the first two of the four Jack Irish novels will be brought to life by the ABC when Bad Debts and Black Tide go to air as telemovies over two consecutive Sundays from this weekend.
Starring Guy Pearce as the criminal lawyer-turned-private investigator and debt collector, the telemovies are grounded recognisably in Melbourne’s inner north, where Temple used to live, with the graffiti-strewn walls of Fitzroy and Collingwood, bluestone cobbled laneways and trams trundling along Brunswick Street forming the backdrop.
Carving his own unmistakably Melbourne noir, Temple fashions a world that captures the reader with a Fitzroy mired in murder, drug deals and duplicity. It was vitally important for Temple that Melbourne come alive on the page. He says that back when he started the Jack Irish yarns, the city wasn’t quite as temperate as it’s become. “It was gloomy, with incredibly wet, very cold winters only enlivened by football.”
Born in South Africa in 1946, Temple moved to Australia with his wife in 1980, spending his adult years kicking around the same stomping grounds as Jack. “I worked just off Brunswick Street and saw it change from being just a couple of cafes, a gunsmith and a few central European clubs where people played snooker and cards, to what it is now. That’s where I knew best when I started writing.”
Jack seldom ventures out of this patch. “He has been known to cross the Yarra, to see his sister, but it’s always unwillingly, and he does venture into the countryside, usually on horse matters, but it’s always with a certain disdain,” Temple says.
Of course, the linchpin of any good crime novel is the local pub, and in Jack’s world it’s the Prince of Prussia. Locating a real watering hole to play the part in the series wasn’t easy.
“They had tremendous difficulty finding one that didn’t want to charge you so much you had to mortgage a house for a day’s rental, so they built one,” Temples chuckles. “It’s terrific, full of old Fitzroy Football Club memorabilia. It looks good, and the old codgers in it look very good, too.”
Temple praises the efforts of director Jeffrey Walker (Rake, Angry Boys), saying that the ABC series’ production values look bigger than TV. He also commends writer Andrew Knight (Rake, SeaChange) who deftly updated the source material.
“Andrew asked me to look at stuff in the beginning and I immediately acted up, then common sense prevailed. I said, ‘Just go and don’t show it to me’,” Temple says.
Initially doubtful, Temple’s impressed by Pearce’s performance. “I was taken aback when Guy was first suggested,” he says. “I couldn’t see him as Jack at all, although I’ve never really seen Jack. I’ve always tried not to. I don’t like seeing my characters, but five minutes into the first one he was Jack, as far as I’m concerned. He’s a terrific actor with a real brooding presence.”
Temple hopes the uniformly strong cast, including Don Hany, Shane Jacobson, Marta Dusseldorp and Diana Glenn, can be reassembled for the next two instalments, though sadly, multi-award-winning German actor Vadim Glowna, who plays cabinetmaker Charlie Taub, passed away early this year.
“He’s terrific and loved being in them, but unfortunately he’s gone,” he says. “Ideally one would film them all in one go. There are a couple of other people, dare I say it, they’re not the youngest cast. I want these boys looked after.”
He toyed with writing his own screenplay a few years back, but soon abandoned ship. It’s not an easy job, with complex plots and more than 32 recurring characters to juggle.
“Somebody counted them,” he laughs, genuinely amazed at the level of dedication exhibited by his fans. Of course, this fervour has a downside. “You’re stuck with 32 individual biographies and you have to update them. When I got rid of Jack’s girlfriend in the second book, my publisher said, ‘You’re mad, where’s Linda? I’m not reading any further unless she’s coming back’.’’
Growing up in South Africa, Temple enjoyed the hard-boiled crime fiction of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and Ross Macdonald but says he never aimed to mimic them. “One would be silly to pretend you weren’t influenced, but I didn’t want to write that sort of thing,” he says. “They were very much about loners walking down mean streets by themselves, whereas the Jack Irish books are big ensemble pieces.”
He’s always given Jack a breather in between appearances, like his sixth novel, In The Evil Day, which kicks off in Johannesburg and races through London, Hamburg and the Welsh hills, or 1998’s An Iron Rose, featuring blacksmith Mac Faraday.
“I could never write two in a row – I’ve always interspersed them with stand-alones, which is important,” he says. “It keeps you fresh.”
Temple continues his love affair with Melbourne from afar, having decamped to Ballarat over two decades ago.
“We had no intention of staying, but then our boy got settled at school,” he says. “It’s one of those stories – we thought, ‘We’ll stay another year’. Years pass, he’s grown up and doesn’t even live in Australia, and we’re still here.”
Temple is quite happy writing in his big old house, with a library so full he can’t even find his own novels, and it’s close enough to Melbourne to visit whenever he likes.
“I’ve been able to watch Melbourne from a distance; which is quite good, because you get a bit of perspective on it,” he says.
He’s working on a third book in the non-Jack sequence that kicked off with The Broken Shore – which in 2007 won the Duncan Lawrie Dagger, and was followed by Truth, the latter to be adapted for the silver screen by Tropfest founder and Swimfan director John Polson, though the juices aren’t quite flowing yet.
“That’s the theory, but the practice is quite different,” Temple admits. “I’m also supposed to be writing the fifth Jack Irish. It’s fairly well advanced, but it’s been made difficult by the existence of these films. I’ve been given a picture of Jack that now lurks in my mind. How do I write a book now that doesn’t conflict?”
And if this is Jack’s final outing, will he make it through in one piece or will there be a gruesome ending?
“I would never do that, because people would kill me,” he says. “People like Jack. I think he’s immortal.”
Temple sees no need to tie everything up in a pretty little bow, either, so completists may be left baying for more.
“Life is messy. You reach a point where something seems to have ended for the moment, just leave it there. It can come back, it can change. Nothing is ever finished. Nothing.”
When Temple is back in town, he loves to wander around the old haunts he’s so familiar with, whether that’s Brunswick Street or grabbing a coffee and a bite to eat at Pellegrini’s. Basically he sticks to Jack’s beat, so how much of him is there in his hero?
“None at all,” he retorts, without a flicker of hesitation. “Jack’s a person of character. I have no character.”