There’s a very good reason critics have been falling over themselves to praise Peter Temple’s new novel, Truth: it’s sublime.
It’s not often I read the last page of a book, close the cover and use an expletive to express how good it was. (The colourful language was partially a flow on of the abundance of profanity in the book, and mostly the fact it really was the best way to describe how impressed I was).
Temple is a master at fusing literary and genre writing. Truth is a gritty page-turning crime novel. It’s also a surprisingly moving study of the frailty of machismo. The Australian Review’s Peter Craven said last year that The Broken Shore “is a crime novel the way Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses is a western”.
Truth has been described as sequel of sorts to Temple’s award-winning 2005 novel, The Broken Shore. But while it features some of the same characters (and even gives a nod to his earlier fictional creation, Jack Irish), it can be read as a stand alone story.
The central character is Stephen Villani, a peripheral character in The Broken Shore, who is now the head of Homicide for the much maligned Victorian Police. Over a few scorching summer days, Villani must face personal and professional crises as he simultaneously deals with a series of brutal murders, corruption in his own ranks, and the disintegration of his family, all while bushfires bear down on Melbourne.
It all starts with the murder of a young woman in the city’s newest luxury high-rise, followed by horrific torture killings of three hard-core drug-dealing criminals. As Villani and his fractured team investigate, he finds himself heading into murky political waters.
Villani’s world is populated by politicians on the knife edge, charismatic entrepreneurs, well-connected journalists and seedy underbelly criminals.
For those unfamiliar with Temple’s sparse prose, it can take time to settle into his rhythm and storytelling style.
As a reader, you just have to dive in and hang on, even if you have no idea who’s in a particular scene or even why. He’s a realist in the true sense. In reality, we don’t have internal monologue to provide exposition, and so it is with his characters. But patience is rewarded – often spectacularly.
Although there are crimes to be solved – and Temple gets to them – he’s primarily concerned with Villani’s personal challenges. Truth is about fathers and sons, and damaged relationships. It’s about hard men and the frailty inherent in them. It’s about authority and power, and the way men measure each other and demand respect.
When it comes to dialogue, Temple is a master. So much is conveyed with so few words. Villani, in particular gets some wonderfully wry lines.
When he asks his offsider, Bickerts about wellness spas, the detective replies:
“Respect your body. Think positive thoughts. Live in the moment.”
Villani: “What if the moment is absolutely shit?”
Or when the forensics guy gives his report about a crime scene: “Man near entrance is shot in the head at close range from behind. The other two, multiple stab wounds, genitals severed, other injuries. Also head and pubic hair ignited, shot, muzzle in mouth. Three bullets recovered, 45 calibre.”
Villani: “So you can’t rule out an accident?”
There are definitely a lot of characters – too many, to be honest – but every one and every piece of information provided is important. Nothing here is superfluous to the story. All the dots connect in the end. And brilliantly so.
Melbourne’s politicians, media and police hardly come up shining (and recent headlines make the bleak picture painted in Truth all the more disturbing), and yet Temple offers redemption for drug-crippled city in the form of honest, if not heavily flawed, men and women.
Truth had me marveling at its cleverness and honesty, and left me with a great sense of satisfaction at how it all came together. (As mentioned earlier, it also left me foul mouthed for a day or two – Villani and his mates certainly don’t talk sweetly to each other…).
I loved the Jack Irish series (particularly Temple's debut Bad Debts), and enjoyed The Broken Shore, but Truth is now without question my favourite novel, from one of my favourite authors.