Friday, January 22, 2021


THE RED HAND by Peter Temple (Text Publishing, 2019/Quercus, 2020)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Peter Temple didn’t start publishing novels until he was fifty, but then he got cracking, writing nine of them in thirteen years. When he died, in March 2018, there was an unfinished Jack Irish novel in his drawer. This substantial fragment, entitled High Art, reveals a writer at the peak of his powers.

The Red Hand also includes the screenplay of the ABC telemovie Valentine’s Day, an improbably delightful tale about an ailing country football club, as well as stories, essays, autobiographical reflections, and a selection of Temple’s brilliant book reviews.

It’s been over a decade since the great Peter Temple told the Miles Franklin Award judges that they’d have to “cop it sweet” for giving Australia’s most prestigious literary prize to a crime writer for the first time (he received the accolade for TRUTH). “You’ve done the crime, you do the time,” he said to laughs from the gathered literati. 

TRUTH was a special book, a companion to equally exquisite THE BROKEN SHORE and a deep character study of a Melbourne detective whose life is teetering as he investigates a murder and bush fires rage across his state. The Miles Franklin judges called TRUTH "a stunning novel about contemporary Australian life, written with all the ambiguity and moral sophistication of the most memorable literature". 

It's fair to say that more more than anyone, Peter Temple broke down the cultural cringe long associated Downunder with local crime writing. I've since heard it said by a few people, 'if anyone says crime fiction can't match literary fiction, throw a Peter Temple book at them'. Sadly, TRUTH was to be Temple’s final novel; a planned coda to his loose trilogy never eventuated before his death in 2018. 

Fortunately, THE RED HAND offers readers another taste of Temple’s brilliance. 

A posthumous collection, it includes part of an unfinished fifth Jack Irish novel, the screenplay for a TV movie about an ailing country football club, and essays, reviews, and reflections from an author known for his poetic, searing storytelling. 

Recently I listened to an audiobook version of TRUTH, and it underlined the poetic nature of Temple's writing. He had that knack for description and delving into issues in a concise, powerful way that was fresh, just a little bit of a different view to the norm even when he's addressing things that may have been widely written about before. Fantastic imagery, plenty of subtext. 

THE RED HAND is definitely a volume to grab for crime fiction aficionados, or anyone who appreciates the finest writing. It opens with Michael Heyward of Text Publishing's introduction, which sets the scene well and gives an insight into the personality and legacy of their wonderful author. 

The title of the introduction, "A Charismatic Curmudgeon", is fitting. 

While THE RED HAND isn't the new Peter Temple novel that many may have been hoping for, it is a wonderful collection that showcases his sharp mind and pen, and what he meant to the storytelling community in Australia and beyond. His was a career that had an impact far outweighing the number of novels he wrote, and this collection provides a final goodbye that is a good addition to your bookshelf. 

Craig Sisterson is a lawyer turned features writer from New Zealand, now living in London. In recent years he’s interviewed hundreds of crime writers and talked about the genre on national radio, top podcasts, and onstage at books festivals on three continents. He has been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards and the McIlvanney Prize, and is founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards and co-founder of Rotorua Noir. His first non-fiction book, SOUTHERN CROSS CRIME, was published in 2020. You can heckle him on Twitter. 

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