TRUTH is such a rich book that it’s hard to know where to start a review. On one level, it’s a police procedural set in Melbourne, as the new head of homicide, Inspector Stephen Villani, investigates two crimes. First, a young woman’s body is found in a penthouse suite in a fabulous new luxury casino-apartment-hotel. The entire room has been cleaned and there are not only no clues that the police can find, but the building’s much-vaunted electronic security has failed and the various owners and management are very unhelpful, preferring to put the pressure on Villani from above to defend their business’s reputation than to help to discover what happened to the young woman.
As Villani and his team become frustrated both at the lack of progress of the investigation and at the various attempts from on-high to persuade them to drop it, a violent triple murder occurs in which one man is shot and two well-known criminal brothers are brutally tortured to death. Again, Villani, an old-style cop at sea in the modern networking habit, is put under pressure from his superiors, this time to hand the case over to Crucible, the special squad combating organised drug crime.
The novel is told from Villani’s point of view, everything being filtered through his fractured memories, guilt and cynical exhaustion from a life in the front line and a largely unhappy family. Like other protagonists in novels by this author, Villani has lived through the massive societal shift from when he first joined the police force, when the job was more straightforward, to now, when politics, international organised crime, business, political correctness and bureaucracy blur all the boundaries, and as the old neighbourhoods disappear in favour of speculators on the fringes of legality, with vested interests to protect.
Villani’s internal life is dominated by memories of his father Bob, a Vietnam veteran who lives in the fire-threatened countryside, among horses and farmland. At the core of Villani’s psyche is the forest that he and his father planted when he was a young boy. This forest symbolises whatever hope and beauty is left in the destroyed lives of Villani and his family – no mother, father emotionally distant and often away for months on end, leaving the young Stephen to watch out for his two younger siblings (one a half sibling abandoned at the farm by the young woman who gave birth to him).
Villani constantly broods on his distant boyhood past, and his present-day relationship with Bob and his two brothers, who he sees as being more loved by his father than himself. He’s also haunted by his career in the police. Among many half-hints and vague memories, we become aware that Villani has been involved in the past in the fatal shooting of a suspect, Gary Quick, and has spent the years since visiting and helping the man’s mother, old Rose Quick, who has become a substitute mother to him. Yet Villani is constantly torn between caring for the old woman and his guilt over his role in the death of her son, unspoken between them yet hanging over their relationship.
Villani’s own family, his wife Lauren and his three children – grown-up Corin and Tony, and teenager Lizzie, is also a mess. Villani has recovered from a gambling addiction but has been consistently unfaithful throughout his marriage and continues to be so even while despising himself for his disloyal behaviour. Lauren has become independent of him, running her own catering business and, it seems clear, with her own lover. Villani, being a typical Peter Temple character, is attractive to every woman he meets, and at the time of this novel he is having an affair with Anna, a beautiful TV political journalist. But his detachment from his younger daughter Lizzie leads to utter disaster, compounded by Villani’s inability to drop his job (his motto is HCF for “homicide comes first”) to help her when she falls off the edge in the way that only a teenager can.
Although this review is long, I feel as if I have only touched the surface of the layers of this complex and rewarding book, which is so rich in evocative if often confusing details (this is definitely a story that will seem clearer on a second reading). Villani’s relationship with his team, particularly the racially taunted Dove, is beautifully observed, as are the insecurities he feels when meeting the business and political elite. Externally, the background of an upcoming election, politicians’ manoeuvring and the news media with their plants and moles everywhere, echo Villani’s feelings of being out of depth and lacking self-assurance, despite the obligatory male, swaggering, sexist exterior which is the norm in the circles in which he operates. He seems a decent man despite his many and varied faults. Can he, in fact, do the right thing with his current cases and with his family? It seems an impossible challenge.
This is a fantastic book: it has a strong, satisfying plot; yet in its brutal, sad poetry it is a telling account of the myriad tragedies and ruined lives in our shallow, materialistic and unedifying age, dominated by our fascination with the power of technology and wealth, but lacking principle, depth or kindness. Although it is a sequel of sorts to the author’s brilliant THE BROKEN SHORE, it isn’t necessary to read the earlier novel, although Villani appears in both. The main bridge between the two novels is the previous head of homicide, Singleton, whose ghost is a constant presence in TRUTH. The protagonist of the earlier novel, Joe Cashin, the nearest Villani comes to having a friend, is a slight presence in TRUTH. The lawyer Jack Irish, the main character in a series of four novels by Temple, makes one brief guest appearance here.
Peter Temple's UK publisher is Quercus, who kindly sent me a copy of this novel.