The Emily Tempest Novels
by Adrian Hyland
Blood, Myth and Poetry by SF Winser
To international readers, it may seem out of character that Australia is one of the few countries in the world that maintains a living poetry tradition outside academia and literary journals. We’re a bunch of hard-drinkin’, hard-workin’ farmers who surf while living in the outback. There’s no room in that for poetry – we’re too busy mashing-up terrible stereotypes.
Yet poetry tradition we do indeed have – alive and well and unhampered by attempts to be preserved by over-analysis or self-consciousness. It's called 'Bush Poetry' and follows the traditions of some of our own Dead White Males, Henry Lawson and A.B. “Banjo” Patterson in being down-to-earth, able to be written about everyday subjects and is as likely to be penned by the bloke in the pub as the artiste in the cafe or the academic in the university. It’s a real, breathing tradition. I personally know at least two bush-poets, one of whom writes poems on the fly in various eateries and attractions in exchange for discounts or simply as a compliment to the service. I can't walk into a pie-shop or pub around here without seeing a framed paper-napkin, inscribed with several stanzas and his name at the bottom. Sometimes Bush Poetry is just a funny tale, told in verse. However, Bush Poetry is just as often about loneliness, determination and death in a sometimes hard landscape.
Bush Poetry is rock-solid literature with its head in the clouds. In 'Diamond Dove' and 'Gunshot Road', Adrian Hyland has achieved something almost like the best Bush Poetry, but in a couple of crime novels. His language in these books – the first two in the hopefully ongoing 'Emily Tempest' series – is scattered with expletives, double entendres and the kind of crudely imaginative phrase-making common to certain Aussies. They're crime novels set in the oft-harsh Red Centre of Australia, full of hard-men, fringe-dwellers and dispossessed Aboriginal tribes; so swearing and violence is more often noted for its absence.
Hyland takes all of this, scatters it with an unashamed high-class vocabulary and the odd, well-placed poetic structuring and makes the whole thing sing. Not in the sense of revelling in the poetry of the crude for itself. He’s not giggling behind his hand at how cutting edge and naughty he’s being like some who write the literature of the edges. Hyland is just taking reality and making it, somehow, more three dimensional. Just like the best Bush Poetry.
On top of this, Hyland has as a main character Emily Tempest. Sometimes a crime novel is only as good as its protagonist. Emily Tempest is up there with the greats. She’s a woman who is half-white, half-Aboriginal, sort-of university educated (she dropped out of three degrees) and very well travelled. Emily is smart, sexual, compassionate, rebellious, loyal, vulnerable, and with a hard-headedness that hurts her as much as it helps. There's more than one person who comments on the apt nature of her last name. She has a knack for getting into the middle of problems and the stubbornness to eventually work her way out of them again. Emily is a well-drawn character to the point of being a photograph. The reader can almost smell her. She has just the right amount of flaws and contradictions to be real and just enough charisma to be a likable protagonist. This is what they mean by our strengths being our flaws. Emily is sceptical enough to see through crap, but this scepticism keeps her from fully revelling in the Dreaming of her tribe. She is smart and intellectual enough to have felt trapped in the small townships when she was young, but this intellectualism also allows her to feel a depth in the world she has returned to that very few around her enjoy – she sees the landscape through the eyes of a half-trained geologist, of an Aboriginal person with her own Dreaming and land, of a town-insider and of a prodigal daughter returned from years in exile experiencing this world afresh. She loves it, understands it and knows it, all at the same time. Possibly deeper than those around her. But she constantly harbours the sense of an outsider. She puts herself on the line for others and, as a consequence, is regularly burned by the fire she herself has started. The Aboriginal people have many good reasons to fear and despise the police and, in the second book ‘Gunshot Road’, Emily becomes a liaison to the police even though everyone around her will instantly fear that idea - and despite her own tendency to disrespect authority and break rules she doesn’t like.
I think I have a bit of a crush on her.
If Emily Tempest was Hyland's only achievement in these books, the man would have the core component for a hundred great novels and set himself up to win many a crime-writing prize. He’s already won a couple.
But if that weren't enough, Hyland imbues this world with his own observations and a touch of social commentary. He never draws back from the problems with violence, drugs and alcohol rife in the communities he writes about, but never, ever, stops seeing the people as valuable. He worked in outback towns like this for many years and even though the setting is fictional, there is a definite sense of reality here.
And then we have the mysteries themselves. Both books set these up well and keep the stories moving – 'Gunshot Road', perhaps, clips along with a touch more page-turning pace than ‘Diamond Dove’– and have nice aspects of the plot turning around mining and Aboriginal Dreaming. It's not often one might have to think about Forensic Geology, but Hyland does it successfully and without a trace of boredom. Emily – daughter of a mining-obsessive – knows all this stuff about rocks, we don't have to. And the books have plenty of car-chases, man-hunts, fights and tense dialogue to keep the reading experience fun. In fact, this can be a bit brutal. There's at least one rape and that's never fun to read about, no matter how relevant to the plot and characters it is (and it is).
Hyland writes great, literary crime novels, full of wonderful if not traditionally beautiful language, excellent characters and energetic, intelligent plotting (if you can forgive the odd deus ex machina). I've said before I'm not a 'language is all' reader. I cannot love a novel for its language alone. I wouldn't have liked these books half so well as I did if Hyland hadn't managed to take all the aspects of a novel – plot, character, language, setting and the more airy stuff like theme and symbolism and so forth – and welded them together into a kind of bush prose-poem.