Bashir “Bish” Ortley, a London cop — currently suspended after his drinking problem led to an incident with another cop — gets a phone call: a bus full of British schoolkids has been bombed in France, and his teenage daughter was on board.
And worse, one of the other passengers is Violette LeBrac, whose mother has been in prison for thirteen years after she confessed to helping her father bomb a supermarket — and Bish was the cop who took four-year-old Violette from her mother’s arms after the arrest.
Violette is the obvious suspect, but before the investigation can even begin, she has disappeared, taking a thirteen-year-old boy with her.
Controversial OzYA opinion: I’m really ambivalent about Melina Marchetta’s work. Looking for Alibrandi was my favourite book in grade nine, but then it became assigned reading for grade twelve advanced English, and didn’t really hold up.
So I’m not a wholehearted Marchetta fan. I’ve liked some of her books, hated one, didn’t bother with her fantasy series. And YET, when I heard that her next book was a thriller aimed at an adult audience, I was intrigued. (Crime fiction: my other passion.) I bought Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil from Kobo and spent the weekend on the couch, inhaling it.
It was wonderful.
This is a lovely, twisty novel with lots of mysteries:
- who set the bomb on the bus and why?
- is Noor LeBrac innocent, and if so, why did she confess?
- was the death of Violette’s father really suicide?
- why was Violette in France at all, when her Australian grandparents thought she was in Tasmania?
- why has Violette gone on the run with a boy four years her junior?
- and who is he?
- why did Bish’s mother drop out of his life when he was at boarding school?
- who has his daughter fallen in love with?
What I loved most about this was the legacy of Marchetta’s years of writing for young adults — it’s full of teens, the survivors and victims of the bus attack, and they’re all complex and realistic and interesting. Violette could be the heroine of her own novel, but that would have given too much away, when half the mystery is in the opacity of her personality and motives.
Sabine “Bee” Ortley is another potential heroine, all attitude towards her parents, but also figuring out her sexuality and falling in love for the first time.
Then there’s the thuggish kid who hooked up with Violette on the bus; shy, passive Fionn (in Violette’s words, “the sort of wanker who’ll ask you who your favourite Doctor is”); Lola, the thirteen-year-old daughter of a right-wing MP, and her best friend, Manosha, a working class scholarship student whose parents are immigrants. And Eddie, who has run away with Violette.
This isn’t a YA novel, but it treats its young characters with as much respect as if it were, and I enjoyed that.
I also enjoyed Bish as a main character, even though I’m not usually into Manpain-Riddled Detectives. For one thing, he’s surrounded by women, and regards them as people — Violette and Bee; his ex-wife, a prominent human rights barrister, expecting a child with her new husband; his mother, once the wife of a diplomat, now a sort of English-Egyptian Cordelia Vorkosigan, trailing through the story, cutting red tape and leaving friends and admirers in her wake. And Noor LeBrac, who has good reason to hate him.
I was curious that Marchetta was writing for adults, but even more interested in the fact that this novel’s set in the UK. But it has to be — you can’t drive to another country from Australia, and the impact of the book’s themes come from the recurring motif of the English dividing and destroying families of colour, from the LeBracs to Bish’s own family. His mother, you see, was the daughter of an Englishwoman and an Egyptian man, and when her mother died, the English family took her away from Alexandria and raised her to be “more English than the Queen”.
The other nifty thing is that, although Bish is a cop, he did not work primarily as a detective, but as victim liaison. His skill is in bonding with the teen victims and their families, and with the LeBracs and their former circle. He might be a shabby borderline-alcoholic, but he’s not the complete dickhead you find in a lot of crime fiction.
The book’s biggest weakness, for me, is in the POV changes — or rather, not the POV changes themselves, but the tense changes that accompany them. Bish’s narration is third-person, past tense, but other characters get small chapters to themselves, and those are third person, present tense. It was massively distracting, and brought up unpleasant memories of the wild tense changes in Looking for Alibrandi.
But, as much as I detest that kind of thing, I still gave it five stars on GoodReads, and I’m thinking of buying the paperback for my mum. And maybe a copy for myself, too.