I was intrigued to see that Melina Marchetta had written a crime novel for adults because she’s bucking a trend. These days it seems nearly all the crime writers I know of are moving away from writing for adults towards the presumably more lucrative YA market whereas Marchetta, who has won a string of local and international awards for her YA novels, has gone in the other direction. I knew nothing about the book before diving in other than that it was for adults and at least vaguely a crime novel.
Perhaps not surprisingly given her previous work TELL THE TRUTH, SHAME THE DEVIL does feature more teenagers than the average book for adults but the story’s main character is Bashir “Bish” Ortley, a senior desk-based officer with the Metropolitan Police in the UK currently on suspension for reasons I won’t go into here. When the book opens Bish is at home teetering on the edge of a personal abyss when he learns that there has been an explosion on a tourist bus full of teenagers in Normandy. Bish’s daughter Bee is on such a trip and he is immediately galvanized into action. He and his mother soon arrive at the Calais campground where the explosion took place and discover death, barely controlled chaos and a whole lot of fear. It soon becomes known that one of the teens on the bus is the daughter of a notorious terrorist, a woman who confessed more than a decade earlier to a bombing in England which killed 23 people. Violette LeBrac is at once a ‘person of interest’ but she manages to disappear from the campground before much official questioning can take place. Bish, being currently unemployed and having a personal stake in matters, becomes semi-officially involved in the subsequent hunt for Violette and the younger boy who disappears with her.
This is one helluva story. It does rely on some potentially unlikely coincidences – it reminded me of Kate Atkinson novels in that way – but Marchetta’s skill at weaving all the complex strands of narrative together allows the reader to believe it all. This overall sense of credibility is aided by the many real-world elements incorporated into the storyline such as the role social media plays in most lives these days and the ever-present tension between society’s demands for punishment and revenge and the fact that most individuals have a basic humanity to them. And then there’s the fact that it’s a damned fascinating story and perfectly paced to boot. Where so many thriller writers go wrong (for me) is that they never let their characters, or their readers, catch their breath. TELL THE TRUTH, SHAME THE DEVIL is full of suspense (it kept me awake way too long on a week night because I had to know what happened) but there are pauses and light moments and characters have time for some introspection even while chaos unfolds around them.
As a nearly 50 year old woman I’m not all that interested in stories which only show the world from teenagers’ eyes so have been a bit bemused by the recent explosion in YA popularity among adults and was a little wary when I realised so much of this book would focus on teens. But Marchetta has done a great job of allowing us to see things from all her characters’ perspectives. The dialogue in particular is spot on and the subtle differences between adults talking to each other, teens talking to adults and teens talking to each other shows both where the adult and teen worlds are similar and where they’re wildly different. It’s a real highlight of the book. In fact the characterisations as a whole are a highlight. Whether it is Bish himself or Violette or her mother – whom Bish is forced to visit in prison to gain what insights she’s prepared to share that might help him to locate Violette – or any of the more minor characters they are all very believable and compelling.
In short, I loved TELL THE TRUTH, SHAME THE DEVIL. It’s got action, suspense, humour, sadness and enough hope to ensure the reader is not left feeling suicidal at the end. It has a very ‘of the moment’ sensibility in that it tackles very topical issues such as the role of social media in the modern world and the complex way we collectively deal with horrendous crimes such as terrorism, but all of this is done intelligently so that the book won’t feel out of date in a year’s time. Highly recommended.
This is the 15th book I’ve read and reviewed for the fifth Australian Women Writers Challenge (well technically it’s 14.5 as one book was written by a father daughter team). For more information about the challenge check out my challenge progress, sign up yourself or browse the Challenge’s database of reviews.
Publisher: Penguin 
Length: 405 pages