by Peter Temple
Book 1 in the Jack Irish series
Read: 21 October - 11 November 2010
Meet Jack Irish: some-time lawyer, part-time private eye, spare-time cabinet maker and full-time lover of strong coffee, swift horses and spirited women.
A phone message from ex-client Danny McKillop doesn't ring any bells for Jack Irish. Life is hard enough without having to dredge up old problems: His beloved football team continues to lose, the odds on his latest plunge at the track seem far too long, and he's still cooking for one. When Danny turns up dead, Jack is forced to take a walk back into the dark and dangerous past.
I found this book a bit slow to start with. The main mystery is quite complex and needed time to build, and it has a political aspect involving conspiracy and corruption and lots of different names which made it a bit hard to follow. But once the story gets going, it gets very interesting and I didn't want to put it down. The ending might be a tad predictable, but it's satisfying nevertheless.
Jack Irish is a likeable fellow. He's been through some tough times, turning to alcohol when his wife was killed by a deranged client back in the 80s. But he pulled himself together, and although he doesn't practice much law anymore, he isn't one of those bitter, grumpy guys the mystery genre is full of. Nowadays he earns a living locating people for various employers, working part-time at Taub's Cabinetmaking and acting as lawyer for Harry Strang, a former jockey who now makes his fortune doing other things in the horseracing business. Most of his clients are rather shady people, but Jack himself is a genuinely good guy. There is also a great cast of secondary characters, from the old guys drinking and watching the footy at the local pub to Charlie Taub, Jack's woodworking mentor. In the end my favourite character besides Jack turned out to be Cam Delray, a quiet, but surprisingly capable man.
The language is very Australian, making it sound authentic, but also tough to understand sometimes. I'm glad I've spent some time in Australia (and watched a lot of Aussie films and tv shows), because otherwise I would have had no idea what "arvo" meant or what the heck a "Drizabone" is (answer: "arvo" is short for "afternoon" - apparently Aussies love shortening words - and a Drizabone is a full-length waterproof riding coat). The language wasn't the only thing that caused me problems; the sub-plot involving horse racing and betting was tough to grasp for someone who's sat on a horse once in her life and have never understood how the odds system works. I did get the overall gist of it though, and that was enough to keep me interested.
To me the book has the same mood as great Aussie cop shows from the 90s like Stingers and Murder Call; suspenseful and noir-like. In my mind I kept picturing Australian actor Colin Friels as Jack. In fact, I think this probably would have made a good tv series, either a mini-series or as a mystery series with 1,5 hour episodes.
Bad Debts won the Ned Kelly Crime Award for Best First Novel in 1997.
My rating: 4 / 6
The Jack Irish series:
Bad Debts (1996)
Black Tide (1999)
Dead Point (2000)
White Dog (2003)