I think that every novelist has a single ideal reader (Stephen King, On writing)
As I was reading Peter Temple‘s Truth I wondered whether I was Temple’s “ideal reader”. Somehow I think not. I am not a crime novel reader, but I did read and greatly like Temple’s previous book, The broken shore, so why did I feel less enthusiastic about Truth?
Part of the reason might be expectations. This novel won the Miles Franklin award this year. I don’t, theoretically, have a problem with a so-called genre novel winning literary awards but I did expect that if such a book won it would be out of the ordinary, and by that I mean that it would break the mould of its genre in some way. Well, I don’t think Truth does that. Of course, the Miles Franklin doesn’t explicitly say the work has to be innovative; it just says the work must be “of the highest literary merit” and present “Australian life in any of its phases”.
Another reason, related to the above, is that I found it to be a little too stereotypical. While I don’t read crime fiction as a matter of course, I do watch a lot of crime television, particularly those based on the writings of Ian Rankin, Val McDermid, and the like. I didn’t find Temple’s detective here, Steve Villani (who at one point talks of “the full stupidity of his life”), particularly different from many of the other contemporary angst-ridden middle-aged detectives I’ve seen. I didn’t find the plot, which deals with corruption (in the police force, politics and business) to be particularly different either.
So, did I like anything about it? Well, yes. But not for what Val McDermid would expect. She has said that:
As literary fiction became more hermetic, more concerned with literary theory and less concerned with narrative, crime writers assumed the mantle of turning the spotlight on the world we live in and doing it in a form where narrative was still of paramount importance.
Oh dear. I have to say this narrative bored and, at times, confused me. I was not interested in the plot – in remembering who all the characters were and guessing whether this one or that one might have “done it”. I just didn’t care. But, I was interested in Villani and his relationships with people – his father and brothers, his family, his old (now deceased) boss Singo, and his colleagues, particularly the indigenous policeman, Dove, who appeared in The broken shore. It was all a bit typical really – the workaholic cop with the troubled background and failing marriage – but Temple did manage to engage me in this character. He did this largely by telling the story through Villani’s eyes – through a third person limited point of view (or “first person in the third person” as he told Ramona Koval on the Bookshow). We are right there with Villani through one pretty hellish week in his life: horrific murders, bushfire threatening his father’s property, and a runaway daughter, alongside the odd bit of pressure to drop one of the cases because it was “just” a prostitute who’s not worth rocking the boat over.
Peter Temple is well-known for his writing. Ramona Koval describes this book as having “beautifully written ugly scenes”. I suppose they are. There is a lot of staccato dialogue, though Temple does little to explain the language used by the cops. If you don’t know the lingo, you are expected to pick it up as you go. (American readers, however, will apparently get a glossary!). There are a few motifs which run through the book. Smells are important – they convey the corruption and the social disintegration in the city and they play a practical role in solving a crime; and trees are also significant, conveying Villani’s connection with nature and his father, with, that is, something far more healthy than his homicide-driven life:
Below them a forest, wide and deep and dark, big trees more than thirty years old. Planted by hand, every last one, thousands of trees – alpine ash, mountain swamp gum, red stringybark, peppermints, mountain gum, spotted gum, snow gum, southern mahogany, sugar gum, silvertop ash. And the oaks, about four thousand, grown from acorns collected in two autumns from every russet Avenue of Honour Bob Villani [father] drove down, from every botanical garden he passed.
Lists like this are a feature of the writing and they are effective in building up pictures in the fast moving, rather clipped world of this novel. Rhythm is in fact a significant aspect of the style. As you would expect, the story is mostly grim, but there is the odd bit of humour. I did love this one:
“Say police as caringly as possible. Like a blessing.”
“Jeez, that’s a big ask.”
The title seems to come from a horse which is mentioned only once in the novel:
…the first horse Bob raced, the best horse he ever had had, the lovely little grey horse called Truth who won at her second start, won three from twelve, always game, never gave up. She sickened and died in hours, buckled and lay, her sweet eyes forgave them their stupid inability to save her.
There’s a message in there somewhere – mostly ironic. I kinda like that.
So, my overall reaction? I don’t usually read reviews before I post, but I do when I’m preparing for my bookgroup. One of the reviews I read was Edmund Gordon’s in The Guardian. I like his conclusion that it’s an accomplished book but doesn’t escape the bounds of its genre. I was, I realise, hoping it would – and that means I’m not Peter Temple’s “ideal reader”. You, however, may be.
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2009