“Truth” by Peter Temple

Readers who first came to read Peter Temple through his very popular and lyrical “Broken Shore” may be a little surprised with “Truth” – I am one of those - I was surprised that is -but then not disappointed.

“Truth” features Inspector Villani, chief of the Victorian homicide squad who was a Melbourne based senior colleague of Joe Cashin in the earlier, novel which was set in a sylvan Victorian country setting. This one by contrast takes place almost wholly in the urban setting or at least it feels like that.

It is a tough uncompromising style of cop novel. There are a couple of gruesome murders being investigated by Villani and his squad. Along the way there are several compromising issues and incidents involving the inspectors and their seniors. Villani himself, is faced with leadership issues, moral questions and a series of major personal versus career crises – with his wife, daughters, brother and father for starters. It is realism plus and all takes place over a relatively short period of a week or even less It is packed with detail brought out with terse dialogue and in depth backgound detail - a movie almost in the making I think.

On the dialogue which is a special feature of the novel’s style – one cannot help but note how terse and realistic and probably authentic it is. I found I needed to read very carefully to keep up with what was going on in the different scenarios and to understand the conversations between the police especially. Temple makes no compromises - he has said that he likes to challenge the reader and indeed he does. You have to literally sit in on conversations – and work out was has gone on before between the conversationalists; fill in the dots; remember earlier references – a sort of literary and concentration puzzle - I think rewardingly so. Apparently his American publishers have requested and are getting a 200 words plus dictionary for the book in order to clarify the Victorian police patois for fans there. In this book especially Temple does remind us of some of the very best of American detective and thriller writers. I wonder, is Melbourne the new crime capital of the world?

I also liked the personal dilemmas Villani faced in this fast paced story involving his daughters, his superiors, his lover and especially with his father. The father is an idiosyncratic character who will not leave his semi rural property with the advent of nearby bushfires. Villani senior’s sons – the chief inspector and his doctor brother are involved in a remarkable series of scenes on this theme towards the end of the book. So there is plenty of personal, family interest throughout the novel along with the action. Villani is a well-drawn successful career policeman and maybe the authenticity of the writing holds up best in encapsulating for the reader what it is like to “live” an intense career like this. I think this is a very fine thriller which meets the criteria for being a work of literature.

What is the “Truth” herein? - Varied I think. The quickly realised truth at the end is a little stunner but then the realism of the book has conditioned you for it.



Mylee said...

Ramona Koval interviewed Peter Temple on ABC Radio National http://www.abc.net.au/rn/bookshow/stories/2009/2732549.htm

John Kennedy said...

I am still a long way from the end of my struggle with this book, Faye, but I found your comments very interesting. A bit of online exploration suggests that reviewers and readers tend by and large to share your admiration for the book.

Frankly, I am finding it very hard to push on, and very hard not to become a bit angry. I gather that Temple has stated that he wants his work to be as difficult for the reader as possible. I find such self indulgence very trying. Writing in my mind should be as straighforward as the ideas being expressed allow it to be. (This of course does not mean that it must always be simple.) Complexity and obscurity for the sake of make it hard to read the book strikes me as a bit puerile.

John Kennedy

John Kennedy said...

I have now got to the end of 'Truth'. I can to some extent see why people admire the dialogue, which can be clever and even witty at times. But the almost universal admiration that the book has elicited leaves me baffled. In essence it seems to me a detective novel like most other detective novels: like 'Truth' they usually feature a world-wise, somewhat disillusioned officer, senior but not right at the top of the hierarchy. Like Villani the hero usually seems a hard man, but in essence he is almost the only decent human being in pretty corrupt enviornment. I can think of few detective heroes who enjoy a good relationship with their wives and children, and Villani is of course not one of the exceptions.

The picture of corporate and political Melbourne is interesting and seems convincing, but the novel really is quite exceptionally hard to follow. On several occasions I had to admit defeat in understanding what was happening and even who was involved. Most of the police officers seemed very similar in speech and attitudes, and I often had difficulty working out who was who in the large cast. It was a sensation a bit like reading in a foreign language in which I am not fluent. I gather Temple prides himself on making things difficult for the reader, and resists the pleas of editors to clarify obscure passages. Frankly I can detect little evidence that Temple is up there with the literary immortals who may repay the reader for fighting against the difficulties in their texts. It all seems arrogant and pretentious to me. But obviously a lot of people feel very differently.

The scene near the end when Villani tracks down a mastermind (I think) who promptly suicides was pretty baffling to me. Who is this character? What is his role? The scene where the Villani father and sons risk apparent certain death in fighting a bushfire struck me as sentimental and silly.

There are writers I don't like but whose merits I am able to acknowledge. With Temple I fail almost completely to see why he enjoys the almost universal acclaim that he does.

John Kennedy said...

Thanks for the photos added to this and earlier postings, Mylee.

Faye said...

Dear John,
I dont think you would be alone in not heralding this book as a good read (and not near as approachable as Broken Shore) . But I remain a fan and am inclined to think he is a superior writer - in this genre at least. Having said that I have to confess to not being a great fan of the genre - but there are some of these writers I admire quite for their literary skill and broader storyline approach - Temple if one for me and another is the American, James Lee Burke. Temple may not have quite made it to the Burke class whose recent critique on the New Oreans Disaster was masterful - but I think he has some of that quality.

On the Bushfire rescue - A bit over cavalier I suppose but I think it did say something about the relationships of the sons with a difficult, curmudeonly father which I didnt mind.

I have lent my copy to a friend so I cant look up the end wrap up sections but one part I remember had a real punch to it at the end namely, the knowledge that even the senior officer to Villani (was he assistant commissioner) had taken a bribe back in the good old days and that the money had helped Villani out - Villani was unaware at the time but taken aback when it came out (In a situaton where Villani had played a particular Robin Hood role too). I saw this as a cleverly interspersed statement of "None of us is free of taint" and I thought that was realistic, and I liked it.

Is he a writer of literary merit ?- I think the arguments could go on for some time on this one but maybe yes - I will wait and see what he does next. His wide range of characters and action settings are good , i think - I reckon he would do well to build on the Broken Shore set of these.

Thanks for your comments - I think this is one where we have to agree to diagree but I have had fun trying to justify my position.

John Kennedy said...

Yes, Faye. It has been an interesting experience to have someone whose judgment I respect take a very different view from mine.

My position may say a lot more about me than about Temple or 'Truth'. My ideal is the spare supple lucidity of the prose of the classic Icelandic sagas.

(Actually in one respect I found myself thinking of the sagas as I read 'Truth'. Modern saga editions and translations almost invariably supply a list of characters or an index to the characters, or both. Probably such an aid would be supplied only over Peter Temple's dead body, but I do think it would enhance the reader's experience. The last novel we looked at, Hilary Mantel's 'Wolf Hall', has such a character list.)