Crime Scene: MELINA MARCHETTA Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil. Reviewed by Ashley Kalagian Blunt
Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil engages many of today’s pressing political issues within a well-crafted crime fiction plot.
Melina Marchetta’s seventh novel, a realist crime story aimed at adults, is a switch from her previous fantasy and Australian-based YA books. Tackling issues surrounding Islamaphobia, refugees, terrorism and parenting, the narrative sometimes reads more like a fictional reworking of today’s headlines than a typical crime novel. Though there’s a plot tie-in to Australia, Marchetta’s home, Tell the Truth is set mainly in England and France.
The story follows Bish Ortley, an Englishman with part-Egyptian heritage. Suspended from his role as chief inspector with the London Met, Ortley is recently divorced, grieving the death of his son, and descending into alcoholism.
When a bomb cuts his teenage daughter’s holiday short, Ortley heads across the Channel to Calais to find her:
Debris lined the road, mostly bits and pieces of the iron gate that led to the camp car park, with what was left of it hanging from one hinge. Beyond was carnage, partly concealed by a canvas being erected around a bus. Bish could see it was split in two, its front section black and smouldering. The back half looked untouched.
Within the first 20 pages, as Ortley gets involved at the site of the bombing, we’re introduced to 20 characters, many of whom remain significant throughout. Adding to the sprawling cast, Marchetta entwines the stories of four generations of Ortley’s family with the stories of her other main characters, Noor LeBrac and her daughter, Violette LeBrac Zidane.
Imprisoned as a co-conspirator in relation to a bomb her father set off 13 years earlier, Noor LeBrac knows Ortley from her arrest years ago. Several members of Noor’s family were arrested for the original bombing on what is revealed to be circumstantial evidence. A woman of great complexity, Noor generally handles her imprisonment with stoicism. Occasionally, however, she reveals her frustration at what was clearly racially motivated behaviour surrounding her arrest. She tells Ortley:
‘I wrote an amazing doctoral thesis, you know. There were only two copies out there. One with my professor and the other on my computer. My professor chose to publically burn hers and the police confiscated my computer.’
Noor’s daughter Violette, coincidentally holidaying on the same bus tour as Ortley’s daughter, has since gone missing, along with another student. Through a connection with the Home Office, Ortley is drawn into the search for Violette and her companion. Though at first he reviles Noor as a terrorist, he comes to suspect she may have been wrongly imprisoned.
Within this plot, Marchetta highlights many of the injustices faced by migrants, refugees and Muslims. She weaves the intimate effects of prejudice on her characters’ lives into a larger context, as when Ortley travels to France, observing:
Migrants lined the road alongside the port, because Downing Street had promised generous benefits to those displaced from wartorn countries. It had resulted in Calais becoming the place for them to get across the Channel any way they could. An eleven-mile fence and a 21-mile stretch of water stood in their way, and for all its promises, the UK was dragging its feet dealing with the intake.
The novel manages to touch on several other hot topics as well – including social media’s power to both build community and incite violence, sexual identity and the challenges of modern parenting. Each of these is integral to the plot and handled skilfully – but readers looking to read crime as an escape from reality may find this book too much of a reminder of today’s headlines and politics.
Ortley’s past-tense point of view telling is interspersed with present-tense vignettes from several main characters. These interludes reveal key information and allow readers to experience the characters from a perspective other than Ortley’s, while providing outside thoughts on Ortley as well.
This is a smart novel that works hard to challenge stereotypes and present diverse characters in an empathetic and engaging way. Marchetta’s writing is vivid and fluid, though she sometimes resorts to melodramatic lines such as ‘There could be no more dead kids’.
Though keeping the many characters and their family lineages straight may slow the initial chapters for some readers, the plot develops momentum and builds to a rewarding resolution. Tell the Truth engages many of today’s pressing political issues within a well-crafted crime fiction plot.
Melina Marchetta Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil Viking 2016 PB 336pp $32.99
Ashley Kalagian Blunt has written for Kill Your Darlings, Griffith Review, and Right Now. She teaches writing and public speaking, performs stand-up and has written two memoirs. She runs the comedy website Full of Donkey. Find her on Twitter: @AKalagianBlunt.
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