Bad Debts

5 July 2023

By: Centre For The Australian Way Of Life

Peter Temple, 1996

Gambling, horses, murder, footy, dodgy pollies, dodgy coppers, dodgy property developers, wired journos, drunk lawyers, junkies and priests. Peter Temple’s Bad Debts, the first novel in his Jack Irish series, has it all. Riveting, gritty, and quintessentially Australian crime fiction, it won the Ned Kelly Awards for Crime Writing and Best First Novel in 1997. Ripe for screen, Peter Temple wrote the script for a tele-movie adaptation starring Guy Pearce in 2012 and the escapades of Bad Debt’s protagonist Jack Irish live on in three seasons of the TV series Jack Irish (2016-) directed by Greg McLean, creator of Wolf Creek.

But it all kicked off in early 90s Melbourne, in a new brick-veneer suburb built on cow pasture east of the city ‘one of those strangely silent developments where the average age is twelve and you can feel the pressure of the mortgages on your skin’. Jack Irish, ex-lawyer, now sometime debt collector, is on the job chasing a defrocked pistol wielding accountant Edward Dollery – ‘big spender, dishonest person, living in a house rented in the name of Carol Pick’. For Irish the omne trium perfectum is lawyers, guns, and money and he lives comfortably, if somewhat aimlessly, investigating petty criminals when he’s not turf watching or barracking for his beloved Roys. The stakes are quickly upped however when he receives a phone call from an ex-client who has recently been released from prison pleading to meet with him, Danny McKillip. Irish unsuccessfully defended McKillip against a fatal drink-driving charge a few years earlier and, himself in a drunken haze at the time following the death of his wife, he remembers little about the case. The pang of conscience prompts him to do some digging and he manages to remember who McKillip is, finds his case curious, and returns the call. It’s too late. Danny has been murdered—by a cop no less —and Irish must find out why.

Bad Debts is first class hard-boiled crime; character-driven and action-packed with smooth-as-silk plotting and dry humour; it is Australian noir in the vein of the great Peter Collis. Temple shares Collis’s superb sense of place and in many ways, Jack Irish is Melbourne’s answer to Sydney’s Cliff Hardy. Like so many works in the IPA’s Australian Canon, these works make a major contribution not so much by opening up new forms of literature, but by repatriating classic forms into Australian settings. In this case, eschewing the need to follow Philip Marlowe around the mean streets of Los Angeles, and enriching our sense of the Australian Way of Life by suggesting that which lies beneath.

Melbourne weather—an entity in itself—maintains an appropriate overbearing presence throughout the novel, always cited in a knowingly acerbic way: ‘A weak sun was shining on Melbourne, but to compensate a marrow-chilling wind was blowing’. We wander the streets of Fitzroy, and Irish’s pub is the Prince of Prussia, a stand-in for the real-life Napier Hotel. Capturing the early 90s well, in Bad Debts the pub was ‘one of the few left in Fitzroy that still made a living out of selling beer. Most of the proud names had been turned into Thai–Italian bistros with art prints in their lavatories’. Three old codgers sit permanently at the bar, nursing glasses of beer and old grievances. Irish calls them the Fitzroy Youth Club and they talk of games the now-defunct AFL club the Fitzroy Lions won 40 years ago, as if they were yesterday.

Temple’s descriptions of Australia and Melbourne in particular, so familiar to us here, are of sufficient literary merit to have attracted considerable attention from international readers who grasp that this is a crime novel about place, a letter of sorts to a city. Temple has featured on the American National Public Radio’s Crimes in the City series where he spoke on the importance of crime thriller ‘hardware’ and the MCG as Irish’s ‘spiritual home’. All the characters of the novel possess an Australian sense of place and purpose, and the stock-standard ones; the girl (also the journo), the coppers, and the pollies, could be anyone writing for or featured in today’s Herald Sun.

As the multi-dimensional Irish, now having taken on the role of private investigator of sorts, begins his work on the case, the love interest Linda Hillier appears, a journalist working on the Yarra Cove property development integral to the plot. The woman Danny McKillip supposedly hit-and-run was protesting the development, which was to take the place of housing commission flats. Over dinner at Donelli’s in Smith Street, Linda gives us an idea of how complex this tale will prove to be and how high up the corruption will go: ‘It’s shitsville. Maybe it’s going to be Venice when the Premier’s mates are finished with it, but it was darkest shitsville then… They’ve shredded the files and composted the bits.’ Property developers are an easy target for novelists everywhere, and clearly Temple couldn’t resist. The Premier and his mates as mates as well as the ABC apparatchiks - are exquisitely facile and self-important and Temple, like his characters, has a spare, funny delivery, and a sharp eye for a target: “Like most men on the ABC, Claude had started out to be a clergyman but tossed in the frock after going a couple of rounds with God in the seminary. I don’t know whether the experience of the religious life left these people sadder but it certainly left them believing they were wiser than anyone else. ‘Premier,’ Claude said, making it sound like an assumed name…”

Temple’s prose is of an exceptionally high quality and with his trademark stark, staccato dialogue driving the plot, he manages to both capture the nuances of Australian argot and elevate a compelling, gritty, tale, into crime literature of place. A ripping read that incorporates icons and mediums which are very much a part of most Australian’s lives, Bad Debts is a unique Australian literary crime novel that certainly deserves its place on the IPA canon.

This commentary was written by Lana Starkey, Future Leader at the Institute of Public Affairs.