Essay by Shane Maloney
On the Westgate Bridge, behind them a flat in Altona, a dead woman, a girl really, dirty hair, dyed red, pale roots, she was stabbed too many times to count, stomach, chest, back, face.
Thus begins Peter Temple’s Truth, the first crime novel to win Australia’s most prestigious literary award, the Miles Franklin.
Immediately we are thrust into the harsh, violent world of Inspector Stephen Villani, head of the Victoria Police homicide squad. The language is terse and atmospheric. The subject is confronting. We have been given fair warning. This will not be an easy read.
Crime fiction is an immensely popular category, but it rarely aspires to be more than entertainment. But Truth, as the critics have been keen to point out, is more than just a good crime story. It is a great piece of writing, a tautly constructed and compulsively paced drama that draws a compelling and believable picture of a world we usually glimpse only in passing headlines and news reports.
According to the judges of the Miles Franklin:
Peter Temple’s Truth is writing tempered by fire. The novel fuses the exhilaration and tension of a complex crime narrative with lives broken, patched and tested against the background of Victoria’s apocalyptic bushfires. In Inspector Stephen Villani, Temple has created an indelible Australian character.
The book takes the form of a police procedural, a genre that depicts the activities of police officers as they investigate a crime. Evidence is gathered and sifted, lines of enquiry are pursued, suspects are considered and eliminated. Eventually the guilty party is identified and confronted. Police procedurals are meant to seem realistic, challenging the reader to follow the clues and spot the red herrings. The investigator is often depicted as having a personal life that impacts on their work.
On that count, Truth does not disappoint, pitting moral courage and intrepid detection against evil and cunning. In many ways, its hero fits the standard template of the righteous, damaged homicide cop whose pursuit of justice is met at every turn by lies, obfuscation, interference and danger, and yet who manages to finally solve the case and bring the perpetrator to condign punishment. What makes it exceptional is the way it elevates that hackneyed and often exhausted trope to a higher literary plane.
Temple spelled out his intentions in an interview:
‘I’m not concerned with whether the police force works this way or that way. You can’t write novels that simply reproduce a reality. I want characters to be captured and wriggling in the net of life. The canvas is not the canvas of crime. It is life. It’s not about transcending genre but about writing as a form of displaying character in action.’
Villani, the protagonist of Truth, is a man who bears the scars of his job. Some of those scars are physical, the result of violence perpetrated on him in the course of his duties. Some are self-inflicted, such as his estrangement from his wife and children. He carries a sense of guilt for the death of an admiring young subordinate, an incident that occurred in Temple’s previous book, The Broken Shore, in which Villani is a secondary character. He is marked by the memory of all the deaths he has seen, and the knowledge that they can never be un-remembered. ‘There could be no unstaining, uninstalling.’ Above all, there are the deep-rooted wounds inflicted by his demanding and undemonstrative father, a patriarchal figure whose definition of manliness has starved his dutiful son of recognition and affection.
Yet Villani is no sad-sack emotional cripple. He is as hard a man as he needs to be, adept at his trade, an effective front-line officer, a professional in ‘dealing with the dishonest, the negligent, the deviant, the desperate, the cruel, the homicidal, matricidal, fratricidal, suicidal’. He is very good at what he does and in a world where clearance rates are a bankable asset, Villani’s value is recognised not just by his fellow cops but also by their political masters. With a state election looming, the prospect of a place in the most senior ranks is held out to him. It is an offer he can refuse only at his peril.
In a summer of sweltering heat and devastating bushfires, Villani and his team are called to investigate the death of an unknown young woman in an empty penthouse in a luxury, high-security apartment complex in the city’s Docklands precinct. The girl – who bears a striking resemblance to Villani’s own daughter – has been brutalised, her neck is broken and her clothes and personal effects are gone. The well-connected stakeholders in the complex regard the matter as a PR problem, a potential marketing setback to be swept under the carpet. Unlike the terrible domestic killing from which Villani has just come, this will not be an open-and-shut case.
As Villani’s squad pursues its investigation, bushfires rage at the urban fringes. Villani’s father, a tough, taciturn Vietnam veteran, intends to stay and defend the family home, a scrappy bush block. To cut and run would be unthinkable, an admission of personal failure.
He’s a hard man, Bob Villani. A long-haul truck driver and sometime horse trainer, he cut no slack when it came to his eldest son. From the age of 11, young Steve was left alone to raise his younger brothers, feed the horses and tend to the house while his negligent, demanding father was on the road. The mother was gone, ill, an unremarked-upon absence. The cosseted, clever middle boy became a doctor and a screw-up. The youngest is a race-caller on country television, all he ever dreamed of becoming. But a copper, what sort of job is that? The only thing Villani shares with his father is the forest they created together, grown from acorns collected in Avenues of Honour and eucalyptus seedlings planted in old carpet underfelt when Villani was 14 or 15. The trees are big now, with echidnas and bandicoots in the understorey. If the fires come, they’ll be ash in a flash.
Fresh corpses are found, three men dead in a backyard shed in suburban Oakleigh, murderous bank robber scum, tortured and butchered. It is a nasty business, a media-magnet, and a speedy result would not be unhelpful to a number of careers.
But Villani’s attempts to solve these disparate crimes are met with obstruction from every quarter. The apartment block security system mysteriously failed during the time the girl was murdered. Influential businessmen, politicians, senior police officers and figures in the media throw their weight against the investigation. His subordinates undermine him and his superiors are tacking to the prevailing political wind. The Labor government is skating on thin ice and the female head of the Liberals looks like a certainty to win the election. Cloth is being cut in the executive suites of police headquarters, contingencies calculated. Villani is put into play, whether he likes it or not.
Meanwhile, his family life is a slow-motion disaster. His marriage is over, a casualty of the dictum drummed into him by his predecessor and mentor, Singo. Homicide Comes First. Fed up with his absences, his infidelities, his excuses, his wife is busy getting on with her life as a successful caterer. Their son is overseas, working, ‘something in Scotland’. Their elder daughter maintains the tenuous bonds of affection, but she’s at university, a grown woman with priorities of her own. Her teenage sister Lizzie is even more remote, uncommunicative, barely there. Home is just a place to sleep. Villani’s tentative on-off liaison with a high-profile television reporter is more often off than on.
Things go spectacularly pear-shaped. The probable perpetrators of the suburban shed atrocity are former Special Operations Group members, cops turned bad. They elude a stake-out, shots are fired, their car explodes on the freeway during a high-speed pursuit. The can is Villani’s to carry. He carries another as well. His youngest daughter Lizzie has absconded from home, got herself mixed up with some hard-core druggies, disappeared. The news could not have come at a worse time. The investigation has reached a crucial juncture. Villani must choose between the demands of the job and the obligations of fatherhood. His decision will have terrible personal consequences.
Information is received that a government minister knew the murdered girl found in the luxury apartment, that he had used her around the time of her death, a kid no older than the missing Lizzie. But assuming that a minister of the crown, albeit a creep, is involved in a crime of this nature is a big leap. Trawling through his phone records is an option, the sort of ethical slippery slope less scrupulous police officers would go down. But not Villani, a man with ethics very much on his mind. An old case has come back to haunt him, rough justice, the execution of a suspect, a tangled web of complicity.
The political waters grow ever more murky. Warnings are issued, threats made, inducements offered. As Villani negotiates the buck-passing and territory-staking, the suburban bloodbath and the Docklands murder begin to converge. The crisis of his missing daughter turns bleaker than bleak. She accuses him of having sexually molested her. The claim is false, unbelievable, but it is a poison that permeates the atmosphere.
Just as the investigation reaches its climax, apocalyptic bushfires race towards Bob Villani’s country property, threatening to incinerate the forest that young Stephen had nurtured during his father’s absences. His father is trapped and his brothers, displaying more character than he gave them credit for, embark on a dangerous rescue mission. Fighting the flames until the battle is doomed, ‘the red hot embers were coming like massive tracer fire’, the father and his sons climb into the rainwater tank. They wait, standing up to their chins in water, ‘to die together in rusty saw-toothed tub’, and finally we learn the meaning of the book’s title. ‘Truth’ was the name of a racehorse.
At the last minute, the wind drops and the fire burns itself out. The forest is seared but it has survived. And Bob Villani finally puts his arm around his eldest son and tells him what he waited a lifetime to hear. ‘Didn’t do a bad job … I should have said that before.’
By the time the smoke clears, Villani has a newer, deeper scar. His missing daughter Lizzie turns up dead, killed by an overdose, probably murdered. Villani holds himself responsible, and rightly so. In pursuing justice for a stranger, he has failed to protect his own child.
And what has been the use of it all? The innocent remain dead. The towers continue to glisten, the branches stay stacked, the money gets laundered and the government has a piece of the action.
At the weekend, thousands upon thousands of people flowed into the city, very European to come in from Donnie and Brookie and Hoppers with your mates, half wasted to begin with, swallow anything, get totally munted, walk around, no fucking fear, mate, the ice fever made you fight your mate, any cunt looks at you, take a spew, take a piss, take a shit, anywhere.
There is no escaping the unvarnished bleakness of this view. In keeping with the requirements of the crime genre, the cases are solved and we finally discover whodunit. There is resolution here, but little redemption. The novel ends with Villani’s promotion to deputy commissioner for crime, just a step from the job as the state’s top policeman. But he had learned secrets on the way that make him question whether justice can ever really be achieved, whether those who uphold the law are any better than those who break it.
Truth is a challenging work not only because of the hard, ugly world it depicts but because of the demands it makes on the reader. The pace of the narrative never flags. There are no periodic recaps, no easy clues, no concessions to stragglers. Every sentence counts. The reader’s intelligence is assumed. If you want embroidery, you’re in the wrong shop. Pay attention or get left behind.
Temple’s prose style is an example of what the poet John Forbes called ‘macho lyricism’. When scene-setting and physical description is required, the results are impressionistic and cinematic. Vivid images punctuate the narrative, catching in the mind like a world ‘glimpsed under the flicker of lightning’ as one critic put it. In these brief bursts, we see illuminated the entire landscape of Villani’s existence:
… the city towers, wobbling unstable in the sulphurous air …
Across the sloping paddocks in the grey silent day, man and boy, through the ancient lift-and-drag gate …
Much of the potency of the writing lies in the way Temple uses dialogue. Characters communicate with each other in brief, economical exchanges. Their words are a form of action, advancing the plot and illuminating character. There is a coded jokiness to much of it. The police express themselves in the familiar shorthand slang of insiders. Villani’s subordinates take their verbal cues from him and mirror his way of talking. He is a demanding boss, but it is results not explanations that he demands. This leads to many of the characters sounding alike and it can be difficult sometimes to know exactly who is doing the talking and what they are conveying. It can take a second or third reading before the meaning is grasped.
‘Truth’ is a portentous word, implying that this book contains some startling revelation or profound verity. The fact that it turns out to be just the name of an insignificant racehorse, mentioned in passing, suggests that Temple is mocking our expectations. It’s just a novel, he seems to be saying, don’t go looking for hidden depths.
In fact, many challenging themes do run through Truth – murder, honour, masculinity, family, deceit and betrayal.
At the core of the novel is Villani’s relationship with his father, the way it made him the man he is. Although its exact nature is never explained, Bob Villani’s experience as a soldier in Vietnam has shaped him into an unyielding, emotionally self-contained person. What he values above all is a man’s ability to grasp what is required of him and to do it without instruction, excuses or the need for praise. His son has absorbed and reproduced much of this definition of masculinity while also regretting and resenting its emotional cost. The need for his father’s approval and the knowledge that his father is incapable of expressing it is given symbolic form by the forest that they planted on their country block. The fact that it was grown from acorns collected from Avenues of Honour – community memorials to the country’s war dead – links it both to Bob’s experience in Vietnam and the notion of regeneration and restoration.
Above all, Truth is a book about the cost of justice. Villani’s commitment to bring justice to the victims of murder costs him his marriage and the life of his child. He ends the book as the newly appointed crime commissioner, a keeper of secrets. The truth, he knows, does not always set you free.
© Copyright Shane Maloney 2014