Truth, by Peter Temple, is an Australian police procedural that revolves around a teenager found murdered in a state-of-the-art, extremely high-security, extremely high-priced apartment building and casino complex. Stephen Villani, head of homicide in Melbourne, has been called in to solve the crime. This is, of course, far from the only thing on Villani’s plate: there are three men murdered in a sadistic rampage and apparently tied to both mafia and drugs; there is corruption; there’s his stubborn father caught in rampaging wildfires; there is his own crumbling home life. But quite apart from the pressure put on him by the high-rollers of the city, who want their casino cleansed of wrongdoing, Villani finds himself haunted by the girl, who looks like his rebellious, drug-addicted daughter, and wonders what she was doing there in that apartment. To be honest with you, about halfway through, I started wondering what I was doing there myself, and what Villani was doing there as a policeman, and why we didn’t all go do something nicer, like have a glass of wine and watch something funny on television.
Part of the problem with the book is that it’s almost unbelievably grim and bleak. There’s no respite anywhere. I won’t deny that it’s compelling — I wanted to know what was going to happen in all the different plot lines, and that’s a rarity. But Villani is a rough-edged character, no knight in shining armor, and whether we’re looking back at his childhood and his relationship with his father, back at his failed marriage and attempts at fatherhood, back at his actions as a young policeman, or gazing at his work as chief of homicide, there isn’t always a lot to admire or even enjoy. It’s enough to make you wonder — if this is really what being a policeman is like, why on earth would anyone attempt it?
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.
Some of them dead.
(Temple goes in for these lists. They are often quite effective, but they’re definitely a tic.)
Things go from bad to worse in this book, and from worse to even worse. This jagged rhythm is reinforced by the prose, which is so terse that at times it doesn’t seem like actual English. Some of this is Australian and police slang, of course, and there’s even, hilariously, a glossary at the end of the book. But Temple writes in a way that makes Hemingway look bloated and prolix. There were moments at which I had to go back and ask myself, er, what was that trying to convey, precisely?
“The farmer’s wife wants O’Barry for Pope,” Colby said. “Clean skin, untainted by culture. But the boyo himself, he knows it’s a moon landing. The twat’s walking around in the big boots, fucking fishbowl on his head. Knows zero plus bugger-all about the place he’s in. At. On. Whatever.”
I will just share with you that the only thing I understood of that paragraph, in context, 162 pages into the novel, was “Colby said.” And this was not unfrequent. Any tips on what in Jehosephat this is talking about would be welcome.
This book, unsurprisingly, kept me engaged the entire time I was reading it: it is innovatively written, has interesting characters, takes place in a part of the world I’m not enough informed about, and has enough material for two or three ordinary thrillers. But it was an extremely heavy read. I have seldom taken so long to read a 400-page police procedural, or glanced so often at how many pages I had left. I was relieved to leave Inspector Villani. Now for that glass of wine.