Fiction – paperback; Quercus Publishing; 400 pages; 2010.
When I reviewed Peter Temple’s The Broken Shore in 2007 I described it as a “refreshing take on crime fiction, both in setting and style”. So when his follow-up to that novel, Truth, won the Miles Franklin Award in 2009 I wasn’t too caught up in the hype about it being the first crime novel to win such a prestigious literary prize. I suspected that it probably had strong literary leanings. I was right.
Two killings — are they linked?
Truth is set in Melbourne, Victoria, and focuses on two separate killings — the murder of a young woman in a luxury apartment block and the discovery of three mutilated drug dealers in a warehouse on the other side of the city — which may, or may not, be linked.
But this is not so much a crime novel but an exposé on corruption — of cops, of businessmen, of politicians.
And while it certainly shares characteristics with the detective genre, the book’s central focus is less on the gruesome killings that Inspector Stephen Villani, the head of homicide investigates, but more on the ways in which Villani copes with events happening in his personal and professional life.
Temple’s prose style is also hard to characterise. There are some chapters which move ahead chiefly through dialogue, and these are blunt and snappy, with everyone talking in a staccato rhythm. But elsewhere, when he describes the city or the bushfires raging in the state’s northwest, he’s rather lyrical and poetic.
A hot north-west wind on their faces, another blocking system was idling out in the southern ocean. Two long valleys ran from the north-west towards Selbourne, the main road down one of them. The fire would come as it came to Marysville and Kinglake on that February hell day, come with the terrible thunder of a million hooves, come rolling, flowing, as high as a twenty-storey building, throwing red-hot spears and fireballs hundreds of metres ahead, sucking air from trees, houses, people, animals, sucking air out of everything in the landscape, creating its own howling wind, getting hotter and hotter, a huge blacksmith’s reducing fire that melted humans and animals, detonated buildings, turned soft metals to flowing silver liquids and buckled steel.
But it has to be said that the story is unrelentingly grim. Villani’s worldview is bleak — he’s estranged from his wife but still living in the same house, he is having an affair with a political television journalist, his younger drug-addicted daughter is out on the streets, one of his brothers is about to be struck off as a doctor…
Then there’s the complicated relationship he has with his bullish father, a man who is now refusing to leave his property despite the imminent threat of bushfire.
The state of Villani’s personal life is only matched by his working life, which is also strained to breaking point. He doesn’t feel he’s earned the right to be head of homicide — and there are plenty of others in the force who feel the same way — so he’s constantly on guard, doing things under the radar or taking risks to get results.
All this means that the book feels claustrophobic — and depressing. I felt heavy-hearted whenever I picked it up and I was anxious to be rid of it.
Here’s but one example of the ugliness that permeates the narrative — this is a description of Melbourne:
Villani remembered when the CBD was still safe enough to walk across on a Friday night. But once the chemicals took over, spread into the suburbs, cops regularly began to see things once rare — teenagers bashing old people, women and children beaten, the punching and kicking and stabbing of neighbours, friends, cab drivers, people on trains, trams, buses, strangers at parties, in pubs and nightclubs, the hacking at people with swords, road-rage attacks, bricks hurled at trams, train drivers.
And 40 pages further, here’s what it’s like to be a police officer in that city:
In uniform, a full understanding of the job slowly dawned. A life spent dealing with the dishonest, the negligent, the deviant, the devious, the desperate, the cruel, the callous, the vicious, the drunk, the drugged, the temporarily deranged and permanently insane, the sick and sad, the sadists, sex maniacs, child molesters, flashers, exhibitionists, women-beaters, wife-beaters, child-beaters, self-mutilators, the homicidal, matricidal, patricidal, fratricidal, suicidal.
I think it’s fair to say that I appreciated Truth — particularly the banter between the cops and the examination of their human failings — but I didn’t like it. The novel was too dark, too edgy, too noirish for me. I found the crime investigation difficult to follow and the subsequent resolution slightly far-fetched. But I wouldn’t mind seeing the film when it finally gets released.