Crime In The City
1:16 am
Tue July 1, 2014

Hard-Boiled Hero Jack Irish Lives, And Drinks, In A Shadowy Melbourne

Originally published on Tue July 1, 2014 12:24 pm

Peter Temple writes prize-winning thrillers, four of them about his sometimes hapless investigator, Jack Irish. The books capture Melbourne, Australia: its pubs, racetracks, big boulevards rattling with traffic, and narrow alleys — called lanes — painted with graffiti.

Jack Irish was headed for a life as a successful suburban solicitor, or lawyer, when one of his criminal clients murdered Jack's wife, and Jack dropped the law to become a drunk. The novels — some are now TV movies — begin with his surfacing and looking around for his life.

The Importance Of Crime Thriller 'Hardware'

Jack Irish lives and drinks in the Melbourne suburb of Fitzroy. Once a working-class area, it curls around a park and a football field — Australian football, that is. It's a rough-and-tumble game played with no pads or helmets, and a mysterious code of conduct called "Aussie rules."

"This is Jack's spiritual home," Peter Temple says of the park grounds. "Jack's father and grandfather played football here, and this is one of the most famous football grounds in Melbourne."

It's one of Jack's failings that he never played football for Fitzroy — he barely manages a morning run in the park. But in the series' third book, Dead Point, he runs for his life through this same park. Temple describes the scene set in the children's playground:

"Jack is being pursued. He runs into the park. The man trying to kill him is running just behind him. They get into the children's playground and Jack swings the child's swing back at him with its chains, and he tangles him in it."

Temple says it can be difficult to find good settings for action scenes. "If you're going to do something about people shooting each other, that's fine," he says. "But if you need something more imaginative, you have to have the hardware at hand."

In the fourth book, White Dog, the hardware at hand is a rusty sheet of tin, which Jack uses as a fatal Frisbee.

An Unexpected Hit

Jack Irish makes a living, of sorts, collecting debts, working as an investigator for his lawyer friends and trying to do the right thing, which mostly gets him into trouble. He's been a hit with Aussie readers, so Temple is kind of stuck with him.

"I didn't want to be trapped in a series," he says. "I never saw Jack Irish as a series. And then they said, 'Well, do another Jack Irish.' And so it went on until I'd done four of them. ... I've become more fond of [Jack] as other people have become more fond of him."

Temple says he created Jack complete with his own history:

"I wanted him to be a lawyer: Criminal lawyers inhabit this frontier land between the law on the one side and the criminals on the other, and they move so easily and they were so clever. Jack, unlike a lot of loner heroes, he's got friends all over the place; his sister is always on his neck. Every time you start a new book in a series like this, you have to wake all these characters up and think, 'Where have they been?' I have to go and read the other books. What were they doing? They all have lives of their own."

The entertaining ensemble around Jack Irish includes a crotchety cabinetmaker, gamblers who run a complicated fiddle at the racetrack and three elderly gents who love "the footy" with a grand passion. Jack calls them the Fitzroy Youth Club, and their team is the long-gone Fitzroy football team.

"These old men talk about games [from] 40 years ago as if they were just yesterday," Temple says. "And they tell Jack stories about things that his father did and things that his grandfather did."

The Youth Club holds down three stools at the end of the bar in Jack's pub, the Prince of Prussia — a sooty old place, soaked in stale beer, with walls covered with ancient pictures of muddy football players. The closest thing Fitzroy has to the fictional Prince of Prussia is the Napier Hotel, circa 10 years ago. "It was much quieter," Temple says, "and didn't have kangaroo steaks on the menu."

A 'Special Brand Of Gift-Wrapped Justice'

Over a long, kangaroo-free lunch and a couple of pints at the Napier, Temple gets down to the business of thriller writing and bloody murder. A recurring theme of his books is the way money can buy people out of all but the most serious crimes. "The rich get a very special brand of gift-wrapped justice," Temple says, "and people are prepared to go to extreme lengths to make sure the right things happen for them."

Another major theme is police corruption. "Australia enjoys a level of police corruption that would certainly compare with almost anywhere in the developed world. I never have had to make anything up, that's for sure. It's all out there, which is a disappointment, because every time I come up with a new plot, I open the paper the next day and there it is," Temple says. "It's happened."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

It's summer in the city, and our thoughts turn to crime, the fictional variety - thrillers, mysteries, detective stories. We're talking about crime in the city as we do every summer - our profiles of crime writers and the places they write about. Today - a visit with Australian writer Peter Temple. It was summer in his city, Melbourne, a few months ago when Linda Wertheimer met up with him.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Peter Temple writes prize-winning thrillers - four of them about his sometimes hapless investor Jack Irish. The books capture Melbourne, its pubs and race tracks, big boulevards rattling with traffic and narrow alleys, called lanes, painted with graffiti. Jack Irish was headed for a life as a successful suburban solicitor - a lawyer - when one of his criminal clients murdered Jack's wife. Jack dropped the law to become a drunk. The novels - some have been made into deep TV movies - begin with his surfacing and looking around for his life.

(SOUNDBITE FROM FILM, "BAD DEBTS")

GUY PEARCE: (As Jack Irish) But I don't practice law much anymore.

MARTA DUSSELDORP: (As Linda Hillier) What do you do?

PEARCE: (As Jack Irish) I live off my wits - gamble, drink.

DUSSELDORP: (As Linda Hillier) Then you'll be keeping pretty much the same company.

WERTHEIMER: That's Guy Pearce and Marta Dusseldorp in the TV version of the book, "Bad Debts." Jack Irish lives and drinks in the Melbourne suburb of Fitzroy - once a working-class area curled around its park and its famous football field. That's Australian football, a rough-and-tumble game played with no pads or helmets and a mysterious code of conduct called Aussie Rules. Peter Temple showed me around Fitzroy, and we went for a walk in the park.

PETER TEMPLE: This ground here is the Fitzroy football ground. This is Jack's spiritual home. Jack's father and grandfather played football here and this one of the most famous football grounds in Melbourne.

WERTHEIMER: It's one of his failings that Jack Irish never played football for Fitzroy. He barely manages a morning run in the park, but in the book "Dead Point," he runs for his life through this same park. Peter Temple describes the scene set in the children's playground.

TEMPLE: Jack is being pursued. He runs into the park. The man trying to kill him is running just behind him. They get into the children's playground, and Jack swings the child's swing back at him with its chains and entangles him in it. It's often difficult when you're plotting to find somewhere to set action scenes because there has to be some possibility that they can be resolved there. If you're going to do it simply by people shooting each other, that's fine. But if you need something more imaginative, you have to have the hardware at hand.

WERTHEIMER: In another book, the hardware at hand is a rusty sheet of tin which Jack uses as a fatal Frisbee. Jack Irish makes a living of sorts collecting debts, working as an investigator for his lawyer friends - trying to do the right thing, which mostly gets him into trouble. He's such a hit with Aussie readers, his creator, Peter Temple, is stuck with him and the interesting cast of characters Temple has invented to surround Jack Irish.

TEMPLE: I didn't want to be trapped in a series. I never saw Jack Irish as a series, and then they said well, do another Jack Irish. And so it went on until I'd done four of them.

WERTHEIMER: But you like Jack Irish, right?

TEMPLE: I do like him. I'm fond of Jack

WERTHEIMER: As a character?

TEMPLE: I've become more fond of him as other people have become more fond of him. I created Jack complete with a full history. I wanted him to be a lawyer - criminal lawyer - inhabit this frontier land between the law on the one side and the criminals on the other. And they moved so easily, and they were so clever. Jack, unlike a lot of loner heroes - he's got friends all over the place. He's got his sisters always on his neck. Every time you start a new book in a series like this, you have to wake all these characters up and think, where have they been? I have to go and read the other books. What were they doing? They all have lives of their own.

WERTHEIMER: The entertaining ensemble around Jack Irish includes a crotchety cabinetmaker, gamblers who run a complicated fiddle at the race track and three elderly gents who love the footy with a grand passion. Jack Irish calls them the Fitzroy Youth Club.

TEMPLE: These old men talk about games 40 years ago as if they were just yesterday, and they tell Jack stories about things his father did and things his grandfather did. He takes the old boys to the football, on Saturdays, in his car.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DEAD POINT")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR 1: Ah, lovely.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR 2: (Unintelligible).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR 3: We're going to win this one, Jack. I can feel it in my bones.

WERTHEIMER: That's from the TV movie "Dead Point." The old men hold down three stools at the end of the bar in Jack's pub, the Prince of Prussia. It's a sooty old place soaked in stale beer - walls covered with ancient pictures of muddy football players. Peter Temple took me to a pub called the Napier Hotel.

This is an important setting or scene for the Jack Irish books? - this particular pub?

TEMPLE: A pub like this - yes. The way this used to be 10 years or so - it was much quieter and didn't have kangaroo steaks on the menu and things like that.

WERTHEIMER: We had a long lunch in that pub. No kangaroo passed my lips. And over a couple of pints, we got down to the business of thriller writing - bloody murder.

I've noticed in your books that there are several categories of crime having to do with property and developers and people who are very rich who are ripping off, you know, the poor people who live in the areas they're about to redevelop.

TEMPLE: What interests me is the ability of money to buy people out of all but the most serious of crimes, and the rich get a very special brand of gift-wrapped justice. And people are prepared to go to extreme lengths to make sure that the right things happen for them.

WERTHEIMER: Cops - corrupt cops and even more corrupt cops - I mean, that's a major theme, as well.

TEMPLE: Well, I mean Australia enjoys a level of police corruption that will certainly compare with almost anywhere in the developed world. I've never have had to make anything up. That's for sure. It's all out there, which is a disappointment because every time I come up with a new plot, I open the paper the next day, and there it is. It's happened.

WERTHEIMER: Peter Temple - his most recent Jack Irish novel is called "White Dog." I'm Linda Wertheimer.

MONTAGNE: And this is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Greene. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.