Truth by Peter Temple (2009) 361 p.


Somewhere along the way I picked up the notion that it’s okay for your personal life to be hopelessly, irredeemably fucked – divorced, alcoholic, sleeping in a flophouse – as long as you’re also a homicide detective. This is a theme that runs through so much great detective fiction, from The Wire to The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, stretching all the way back to the great cop shows of the ‘60s and ‘70s – shows I couldn’t actually name but which have been satirised and parodied ever since. Sure, it’s a cliche, and I’m sure most homicide detectives probably actually have happy family lives – but it’s a cliche that I like. Maybe we’d all feel a bit better about our own shitty lives if instead of slogging off to our boring admin jobs we actually had something hugely important to devote our office hours to. A homicide detective is one of the noblest lines of work there is.

Detective Chief Inspector Stephen Villani is the head of homicide for Victoria Police. His life, in accordance with the aforementioned narrative tradition, is fucked. His wife has left him, his teenage daughter is running wild with drug addicts and street thugs, his career is on thin ice because of a botched police operation in Temple’s earlier novel The Broken Shore (in which he was a minor character) and his father, who lives on a farm on Melbourne’s outskirts, is stubbornly refusing to leave in the face of an advancing bushfire. Over the course of a few days in a sweltering Australian summer, Villani’s personal life collides with two high profile murders: a prostitute in a penthouse apartment and a grisly, torturous revenge killing of a trio of infamous gang members.

As in The Broken Shore, the first thing you notice is how unique Temple’s writing style is. It’s either punchy short sentences or long flow-on sentences with commas. More than any other writer I’ve ever read, Temple perfectly captures Australian dialogue, particularly amongst Australian men – truncated, laconic, nobody ever expending more words than they need to. It takes a while to get into it, but it’s also beautifully poetic at times:

The truck stop on the Hume. Swooshing highway, a hot night, airless. As you opened the car door, it would hit you: petrol, diesel, heated rubber, exhaust gases, chip-fryer oil, the smell of burnt meat.

He stood in the scorching day, the trucks howling by, buffeted by their winds, they flew his tie like a narrow battle standard.

The cold day was drawing to its end. They walked into the wind, the leaves flowing at them like broken water, yellow and brown and blood, parting at their ankles.

Temple was writing Truth during the devastating Black Saturday bushfires which killed 163 people, and this is mirrored in the book, as Melbourne is covered in a pall of smoke from bushfires advancing on the city’s outskirts. It has an excellent sense of place to begin with, but this gives it a sense of time as well, of being squarely placed in an event; the city-dwellers constantly reminded of the fierce danger of the rural world beyond their ken.

The fire would come as it came to Marysville and Kinglake on that February hell day, come with the terrible thunder of a million hooves, come rolling, flowing, as high as a twenty-storey building, throwing red-hot spears and fireballs hundreds of metres ahead, sucking air from trees, houses, people, animals, sucking air out of everything in the landscape, creating its own howling wind, getting hotter and hotter, a huge blacksmith’s reducing fire that melted humans and animals, detonated buildings, turned soft metals to silver flowing liquids and buckled steel.

This is the crime novel that won the Miles Franklin, Australia’s most prestigious literary prize, and rightly so. Not just for Temple’s rich language and sense of place, but for the subtle ways he examines Australian masculinity. In the office, in the boxing ring, in family life, on the streets: everything in Villani’s world comes down to men, and how they express their domination over others, both women and men. Broken, brooding men who hide their emotional core may be a tired old theme, especially in Australian fiction, but I nonetheless found it deeply engaging – especially at the novel’s climax, when Villani returns to his father’s farm during the raging height of the bushfire.

Truth still has its flaws. There are far too many peripheral characters who are referred to by surname only, which became pretty bad, for me, when Villani solved one of the murders and went to confront the killer. The killer’s identity is kept hidden from the reader even as Villani begins speaking to him, but when the big reveal came… I only vaguely recognised the name and couldn’t remember who he was supposed to be, which robbed the moment of its gravity just a tad. And I have to repeat my complaint from The Broken Shore: Temple is a hugely skilled writer who doesn’t seem to realise that his novels do not need to feature larger-than-life villains or culminate in gunfights. Yes, police are often involved in life or death situations, and yes, one of these moments midway through Truth was masterfully done and one of the most tense and unputdownable set-pieces I’ve read in a while. But they stack up as the book goes on, and it stands out as unrealistic, especially when Temple had managed to make everything else in his fictional Melbourne – the people, the places, the dialogue – so pitch perfect.

Although I do have to disagree with one element. Temple portrays Melbourne as a hard and violent city full of junkies, muggers, rapists and killers; Villani remembers a time “when the CBD was still safe enough to walk across at night.” It’s hard to say whether this is:

a) A police officer’s view – a jaded man who’s only ever seen the worst of the world
b) An old man’s view – Temple is in his sixties, and there’s a touch of “back in my day” about it
c) A sort of alternate universe or grim future in which Melbourne has denigrated to a city on par with Detroit or Johannesburg
d) All three

Rest assured, foreign readers, that Melbourne really is a city of bearded baristas, overpriced laneway bars and quirky hipster nonsense markets, which regularly tops various charts as the world’s most liveable city. I feel safer here walking the streets at night than I have in any city outside Korea or Japan, including other cities in Australia. This all ties in with my continual bemusement that, despite being a sunny and happy country with one of the best economies and highest standards of living in the world, Australian fiction is almost uniformly bleak and miserable.

Anyway – those are small flaws, on the whole. I liked Truth a lot. I liked Temple’s writing style, I liked his sense of time and place, and the climax was one of the most affecting things I’ve read in a long time. The Miles Franklin was richly deserved.