Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil
Is there anything Melina Marchetta can’t do? The acclaimed writer of young adult novels tries her hand at crime fiction in her latest, Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil. Marchetta’s protagonist, Chief Inspector Bish Ortley of the London Met, manages to be good and flawed – suspended from his job, alcoholic, grieving both the loss of his son and his divorce – without being clichéd. Ortley’s daughter, Bee, is one of a group of British students touring France when their bus is bombed in a horrific attack that leaves several teenagers dead and others wounded. Ortley, as horrified parent, is soon on the spot.
Two of Bee’s fellow students, Violette LeBrac and Eddie Conlon, go missing in the aftermath. Violette’s family has some history with Ortley. Her mother, Noor, is still in prison after confessing to making a bomb used in a terrorist attack when Violette was a small child; Noor’s father, the bomber, was killed. Ortley worked the case and remains affected. Violette is quickly blamed for the bus bombing in the tabloid press. As anti-Muslim fervour spreads and vigilantes begin their own search, Ortley is pressed into service by some shady government types. Can he find the missing teens? What secret is Violette hiding? Can his own daughter be trusted? And is Noor’s case as open-and-shut as Ortley once believed?
While the set-up might sound usual, this is a cracking read that’s also timely and intelligent. What lifts Marchetta’s novel above the bulk of present-day crime is her rendering of the teenagers. These are complex characters with their own agency and agendas, not accessories for adults as they go about their adult business. So often in Marchetta’s work we see the world of young people offer rewards for characters (and for adult readers) who honestly engage with it. It’s no spoiler to say that the answers lie in this subculture that’s right in front of Bish, if he can see it. The anti-immigrant political context, also, isn’t ornamental. “Bish” is short for Bashir. Everything works together in this book.
There are perhaps one too many convenient coincidences, and occasionally characters behave unaccountably, but it’s a big, juicy story filled with many characters and Marchetta is a master storyteller. On occasion, even cynical reviewers stay up long past bedtime, nodding and turning pages. Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil deserves to be on the bedside table of every crime fan. LS
Viking, 432pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 27, 2016 as "Melina Marchetta, Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil ". Subscribe here.