I have finished reading Truth by Peter Temple, the South African, who moved to Australia in 1980 and has won the Ned Kelly Prize five times, becoming one of Australia's acclaimed writers. I am still left in breathless admiration for the author whose only other book I have read The Broken Shore, won the Duncan Lawrie CWA Gold Dagger in 2007.
This novel concentrates on the life of Stephen Villani, head of the Victoria Police Homicide squad, as he struggles to cope with problems at work and in his personal life.
A young girl, who resembles his own daughter Lizzie, is found murdered in the bathroom of a luxury apartment high above the city. The Prosilio Tower is one of Australia's most expensive residential addresses protected by high tech electronic security, which has apparently failed on a night when the high stakes casino it houses had arranged a preview for high-rolling gamblers, and other glitterati.
The owners and management of the Prosilio are distinctly uncooperative, and use their political connections to attempt to block the progress of the investigation.
Meanwhile the homicide team are investigating a triple murder with one man shot and two notorious gangsters, the Ribaric brothers, tortured to death.
'The other two, multiple stab wounds, genitals severed, other injuries. Also head and pubic hair ignited, shot, muzzle in mouth. Three bullets recovered, 45 calibre.'
'So you can't rule out an accident?' said Villani.
As the story progresses Villani's relationships with his team, especially Paul Dove, a part aboriginal, who took a bullet in The Broken Shore and returned to work in a mere eleven weeks, is explored. Villani is offered both the carrot and the stick by his slithy political bosses.
'You following me, inspector?' said Orong.
Villani knew why he was there, what was at stake for him, how he should behave in the presence of this shoddy little arsehole, a nothing, no talents, just a political creature who knew how to slime around, how to get the numbers, how to suck up to those who could advance him, screw those who couldn't, how to claim credit, duck responsibility.
On top of all this Villani's marriage is on the rocks as Laurie, his wife, driven by his infidelities and gambling, has created her own life with a successful catering business, and her own lover. For his children, Corin, Tony, and Lizzie, Villani has been an absent father and now fifteen year old Lizzie is running wild on the streets with druggies.
Meanwhile Villani has become involved with Anna Markham, an attractive and influential television political journalist and is beginning to mix with the elite.
In a series of flashbacks woven into the narrative we learn about Villani's unhappy childhood, his father Bob, a hard man Vietnam veteran, the forest they planted that means so much to them both, his brothers, his police career, Singo, his former boss who had so much influence on him, and the death of Greg Quirk, a case that may come back to haunt him.
Justice for the dead. Singo's message to new arrivals. 'We're the only ones who can get them justice. That's our work. That's our calling.'
As the summer fires threaten Bob Villani's farm, a decisive election looms, the political elite scheme, and Villani faces even more troubles as he fights to save his career.
Dove lifted his eyes.
'They're powerful people,' he said. 'They run the world. Why shouldn't they get away with killing a whore?'
This novel is a complex police procedural, but it is worth the extra effort to follow the fast paced narrative and terse dialogue, along with numerous flashbacks and a multitude of characters.
I think most Western nations have a similarly dysfunctional, and corrupt society to the Australian portrayed in Truth, but it is the abrupt, poetically harsh language that makes it seem so real. Peter Temple's style does take a bit of getting used to, and he does not bother such things as political correctness, but that just makes the story seem more authentic, and the characters more realistic.
This is a stunning read of which I have only scratched the surface, and I understand why it won the Miles Franklin Literary Award, Australia's version of the Booker.
A life spent dealing with the dishonest, the cruel, the callous, the vicious, the drunk, the drugged, the temporarily deranged and permanently insane, the sick and the sad, the sadists, sex maniacs, child molesters, flashers, exhibitionists, women-beaters, wife -beaters, child-beaters, self-mutilators, the homicidal, matricidal, patricidal, fratricidal, suicidal.
Some of them dead.
Peter Temple has shown that the police procedural still has a lot of mileage left in it, and I can't wait for his next book.