"There needs to be a place where people come together, freed from their possessions and temporarily free of their houses and their identities to some extent and where they can be in semidarkness and tell the old stories. It was at this bar where I saw a guy tell his life story. And when he was done, he felt better about his life." - J.R. Moehringer, The Tender Bar


Peter Temple: Identity Theory

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Oct 23, 2014
Category: Fiction

Fifth Business
The E-Team
The Plague

WEEKEND CLASSIC: This week: Ebola, the World Series and Renee Zellweger’s plastic surgery. Next week: another shiny new event to divert us. I’d rather detach and read a book I can’t put down. A thriller? Yes, but only if it’s well-written. This? Brilliant.

Johannesburg, 2 PM on a weekday. Here is Niemand, no first name. He’s working out. Inside. "Outdoors had become trouble, like being attacked by three men, one with a nail-studded piece of wood." Niemand is no victim: "The trouble had cut both ways: several of his attackers he had kissed off quickly."  

Niemand, we are told, "didn’t get any pleasure in killing." Which hasn’t stopped him — Peter Temple takes a page to recount three killings on his scorecard. You’ll have no problem agreeing with Niemand’s actions.

Now we’re on page three. An aging Mercedes — actually, a new one, hidden under an old, rusting, dented body — picks Niemand up. We meet Mkane, his partner. They’re on personal protection work today, collecting a woman at a shopping center and making sure she gets safely home.

She does. Niemand and Mkane check the house out. Thoroughly: "There was one vehicle in the garage, a black Jeep four-wheel-drive. A camera at floor level showed no one hiding beneath it." Rather extreme precautions, you think. What kind of world is this that requires "every cupboard, every wardrobe" to be checked?  

The woman drinks champagne. Niemand "holstered his pistol, didn’t feel relaxed." Her husband arrives, scorning Niemand’s black partner. Niemand looked up, "saw something on the ceiling behind him, something at the edge of his vision, a dark line not there before….The man in the ceiling pushed open the inspection hatch…"

Carnage. Out of nowhere. With hot blood and screaming and guns that don’t work and then do, and bodies, bodies everywhere. In the silence that follows, Niemand inspects the husband’s briefcase: envelopes, papers, a video cassette. The phone rings. He answers. The papers? The tape? Yes, Niemand has them. Will he bring them out? Yes, but how much? "Twenty thousand. And expenses." And he’s off to London….

And so ends chapter one. Take a breath. Your first in a while. Turn the page.

Now you’re in…Hamburg. In the office of W&K. Once it was a publisher. Its current business is information — "looking for people, checking on people." In the modern way: six computer terminals, a state-of-the-art mainframe. Very amoral. Find an address, turn it over. A couple is reconciled. Or maybe the husband, upset by the way she drained the bank account before fleeing to France, kills her. It’s all the same to W&K.

A former journalist works here; eventually, you know that whatever is on the cassette will come to involve him. "Eventually" is a long time coming. Temple writes real characters, and they have their stories, their frustrating days, their troubled nights. Plot points drop like Hansel’s bread crumbs in the forest. But what’s the rush? Every paragraph has a jolt of pleasure. [To buy a new paperback from Amazon is a mistake; it's only sold by third-parties, and there's no free shipping. Suggestion: if you want a physical book, buy it used. To do that on Amazon, click here. Stronger suggestion: For the $2.99 Kindle edition, click here.]

Like a man remembering his wife: "…the day Lana drove the Mustang under a car transporter on Highway 401 outside Raeford, North Carolina, 1:45 in the afternoon. She was alone, leaving a motel, lots of drink taken."

Like a description of Hamburg: "The sky was an army blanket, dirty grey."

Like the sudden menace on a phone: "Sonny, deal with me or deal with the devil. There’s much worse coming up behind me. I’m the good cop. You want to walk away from this fucken Waco you created, get the fuck out. And wherever you go, get on your knees every morning noon and fucken night and pray the Lord to take away the mark on your fucken forehead."

Like the repartee, this time about a courier: "They say Ollie North used him" gets, as a riposte, "You wouldn’t want that to be the high point of your career."

Notice I’m not telling you the plot — I’m no spoiler. But you get the mood of this piece. You and I, we walk down the street not especially worried about the people coming our way. In this book, paranoia rules. Anyone coming toward you could have been hired to kill you. Which makes every moment distressingly intense.

Who is Peter Temple? Born in South Africa. Now lives in Australia. Was once a journalist. (It shows. His prose is tight as a noose.) Taught journalism in Australia. Edited a magazine. And, finally, chucked it to write novels. He’s done seven so far, four about a detective named Jack Irish. And he’s won four Ned Kelly Awards in Australia, more than any other author. As the President of his North American Fan Club, I especially commend Truth to you.

Will “Identity Theory” be your first Peter Temple book? Lucky you. It won’t be your last. But just as nothing is as sweet as a first kiss, no Temple novel may thrill you more than “Identity Theory.”

Short takes

Kickstarter: The Joan Didion Documentary

I’m beyond conflicted here — Griffin Dunne, a friend for 40 years, will direct the film of my novel, “Married Sex.” But if I’d never met any of the Dunnes, I’d be interested in “We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live,” the first-ever documentary about Joan Didion. And — on its merits — I’ll happily cough up a contribution to this Kickstarter. Read about it here. Contribute here.

Lori Lieberman: Killing New York Softly

Lori Lieberman says she likes “nothing more than walking my dogs and eating a good chocolate chip cookie,” but if you’ve ever heard or seen her, you know that is just false modesty. This is the woman who wrote the poem that became “Killing Me Softly.” She’s loved in Europe. On Saturday, November 8, it’s New York’s turn — she’ll be performing at Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall. For tickets, click here.

Staging the Scene: Pick-Me-Ups for the Home

When my family travels with Christina Green Gerry and her kids, no sooner have we lugged our suitcases into a rented house than she moves a few things around. Invariably, the rooms look… better. Now she and her friend Stephanie Moulton are making a business out of pepping up apartments and homes. At Making Home, they “stage” residences to help them sell faster; they also fill empty spaces. If I were an unmarried Wall Streeter with no time to give to a new apartment or beach house, I’d just hand them the key; ditto if I wanted a Hamptons rental that looked just a bit smarter than the rest. They’re New York based, but I’d bet they’d travel a reasonable distance — you wouldn’t have to send the jet.

Reader Mail (Advertisements for myself)

From Paul Zengilowski

My children will turn 19 and 21 in a few weeks and the birthday gift choice falls to me. My wife and I bought them books by the bushel when they were young — some they chose, more often though, we exercised our parental prerogative. That stopped as they entered their mid-teens and felt more confident in their choices than in ours.

I’ve not bought them books in years — with two exceptions. The Only Investment Guide You’ll Ever Need, by Andrew Tobias, was a high school graduation gift. Knowing that having the money talk with them would be fruitless, I passed on to them my financial bible. I’d read it when it was first issued and it has served to keep me mostly on the financial straight and narrow over the last 30 years.

The second exception is their birthday present for this year: The 100 Essentials. Should they read only those two books, I’m confident they’ll enter adulthood with important and foundational knowledge that will serve them well.

from Marcie

You recommended Queen’s Gambit to me when I asked for the most grabable book you could think of. I loved it. It’s difficult to articulate precisely what the dark magic of that book is, but I found it fascinating — the characters, all of them, were like no others I’ve encountered. The relationship between Beth and her adopted mother was so subtle. I love that Tevis never capitulates to cliché or sentimentality. Elegant. Thank you for urging me to read it.