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Is Truth Dead?

October 5, 2010

Peter Temple: Truth

Why would anyone want the job? Trapped in a dream that shifted from one ugly scene to another, all seen through a veil of tiredness. The full stupidity of his life overwhelmed him and he closed his eyes.

This is Stephen Villani, head of Homicide in Melbourne. Like Villani the reader of this book becomes trapped in a dream that shifts from one ugly scene to another: murder, corruption, violence, bushfire, deception. It should not be read through a veil of tiredness, but in a fully alert state, looking for the type of connections Villani is capable of making even through that veil. And it’s worth it. Truth richly rewards the effort one must put into it and is a worthy winner of the Miles Franklin Award (see my previous post Against Labels).

What makes it demanding to read? Firstly the plot, or rather the myriad strands of plot, which all twist through the central character. These strands include: two complex and frustrating murder investigations, with the possible involvement of powerful people and their efforts to have the investigations stopped; the ending of Villani’s marriage, his affair with a television presenter, his failure as a father and his fifteen-year old daughter running away to join the street drug culture; his difficult relationship with his own father and brothers and  the bushfires threatening his father’s place; incriminating events from the past that could put him in jail; the scheming of colleagues; and much more. Temple interweaves these strands masterfully, shaping the story in a way that was, to me, more satisfying than that of his previous book, The Broken Shore.

Secondly, keeping track of the characters requires concentration – there are about forty significant characters, half of whom are in the police force, and all of whom are believable individuals, each with their own distinct personality, revealed by the way they talk and act.

Thirdly, while the dialogue is the principle joy of the book, it can also slow the reader down. People in a sub-culture (such as the police force) talk to each other in an abbreviated form, using slang, jargon and in-jokes, and the way they speak reflects the relationship and status difference between them. Temple captures this beautifully, and in doing so he makes no concessions to the reader. One sometimes has to stop and try to figure out what on earth the characters are saying to each other. But this is fine by me – slow reading allows one to savour the writing.

And fourthly, Temple’s refusal to talk down to the reader applies to all aspects of the book, not just the dialogue. He expects us to be intelligent enough to work out what’s happening without him having to spell it out.

So don’t expect to zip through it. I read it slowly the first time and then re-read it quickly and found the whole experience hugely rewarding, mainly due to the dialogue and the depth of the characters – and the way dialogue is used to develop that depth and alert us to what was happening in the relationships between people.

The book portrays a world of deceit and corruption, where truth is dying, and follows the attempts of Villani to operate honestly in such a world, compromised as he is by his own deceptions in his private and work lives. Both he and Joe Cashin, the central character of The Broken Shore, are strong characters, but Villani’s style is much more aggressive, in a way that sometimes gets results but can also be counterproductive. Cashin can lash out when pushed, but is usually gentler and more likeable, and although I think Truth is the better story, of the two protagonists I’d much prefer Cashin’s company. Villani’s too bossy. 

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