There are many ordinary teenage characters in Australian author Melina Marchetta’s new book, “Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil,” and she makes their voices crystal clear, not an easy task. (But maybe easier for someone who has up until now written young adult books.) Before I mislead you further, here’s some pertinent information: This book is set mostly in England and Calais, France, and it is an adult crime novel. But Marchetta’s ability to juggle a lot of characters, half of whom are teenagers, is a literary feat worth noting.
Bashir “Bish” Ortley is a detective chief inspector who is under some sort of cloud at work and has been suspended. He is drinking copious quantities of whisky and feeling quite sorry for himself as his ex-wife prepares to give birth to her current husband’s child. His beloved 17-year-old daughter, Bee (short for Sabina), treats him with disdain and provides the least amount of information possible in their “conversations.” In the middle of Bish’s existential morass, the unthinkable happens.
Bee has been on a bus trip through Normandy with other British teens, and the summer holidays and the tour are about to end. Then a bomb rips through her bus, killing several people. Bish races to the campground where it occurred and is relieved to find Bee is alive. There are other buses from other countries at the campground, and a teenager from the Spanish bus has also died. Coincidentally, the father of one of the girls on the French bus is a police detective, Capitaine Olivier Attal. With his atrocious English and Bish’s toddler’s grasp of French, Bish learns more about the investigation and becomes a liaison between Britain and France.
As one of the first adults on site and because he is used to calming people, Bish becomes the de facto spokesperson and information hub for the British group. The incompetent chaperones who survived the blast are unable to provide any organization or support, so Bish takes over corralling and comforting their charges. That’s when he finds out that one of the teenage girls has been locked in a cupboard in a meeting room on the campgrounds. She is Violette LeBrac Zidane from Australia. One of the chaperones has decided that she is the reason the bomb went off.
About twelve or thirteen years earlier, a supermarket was bombed. The bomber, Louis Sarraf, died in the attack. Several members of his family were also jailed, some of whom were later released but continue to live under a cloud. One family member, Noor LeBrac, Louis’ daughter, confessed to building the bomb, an easy task for a woman on the verge of completing a PhD in molecular biology at Cambridge. Violette is her daughter.
Over twenty people died in the supermarket bombing. Could one of their relatives be responsible as revenge for what Violette’s grandfather and mother did? Or is Violette simply carrying on the family trade?
As a disenfranchised detective, Bish doesn’t have any official standing or recourse to investigative tools. That’s when a lucky break happens to assuage his frustration. An old school mate, who Bish thought was in charge of making sure Britain’s trains ran on time, turns out to work for the Home Office, and he provides the tools on a quid pro quo basis. Bish will interview and locate certain people for them and for himself.
After people begin to disperse from the campground, it is discovered that Violette and another teen, 13-year-old Eddie Conlon, have disappeared. Since Violette is a person of interest, an intensive manhunt begins, sometimes resulting in violence when vigilantes mistake innocent people for the missing teens. In an inadvertent tie-in to current events in our part of world, racial unrest and targeting plays an important role in the background of this novel. Violette and her family are the descendants of Algerian immigrants, their dark and golden features marking them as “different.” Bish can sympathize because one of his grandparents was Egyptian. Both he and Bee carry a vague remembrance of that genetic heritage.
It is also uncovered that Violette is in France without the knowledge of her grandparents in Australia, her legal guardians, who think she is on a student tour in their country. In the course of trying to locate Violette and Eddie, Bish interviews Noor LeBrac, a permanent resident it seems in an English prison. Although she has not seen her daughter for many years, it is possible that she knows why Violette secretly entered Europe.
Marchetta’s plot is intricate and satisfying. Her characterizations are stellar. The resolution is a cascade of tidiness. Although it is not dipped into at any political or sociological length or depth, immigrant discrimination, racial profiling, and the indignities suffered by innocent people because of their heritage provide the foundation of her story. A humanity shared by all is the hope.