‘A story about stories’ – The Professor of Truth by James Robertson

For twenty-one years only one narrative, and a broken one at that, mattered to me. The fracture occurred when Emily and Alice were murdered. Everything in my life before that moment stopped, and everything after it began, right then. I too was a victim of their murders.

tpotjrTwenty one years earlier, Alan Tealing’s wife and daughter, Emily and Alice, were killed when the plane they were travelling on from Heathrow to America was bombed. The basic details of the plane bombing – the flight path; the area in which the plane crashed; the assumed nationality (it’s never actually stated) of the bomber – all bear similarities to the Lockerbie bombing of 1988.

However, Tealing believes that the man convicted of the bombing – Khalil Khazar – is innocent and now spends a significant amount of time working on what he refers to as ‘The Case’. He is devoted to discovering the truth about what happened that day and who was responsible.

The novel begins on a snowy day. Just before Tealing goes outside to clear his path, the phone rings. He identifies himself and then the caller hangs up. Thinking nothing of it, he continues with his task.

…I became aware of someone standing a few yards away. A man in a long black coat, hands in pockets, and with a black woollen hat pulled down over his brow and ears. I had no idea how long he’d been there.

The man identifies himself as Ted Nilsen, former FBI agent (allegedly). Nilsen has terminal cancer and has chosen to visit Tealing to reveal things he knows about the case, including the whereabouts of a witness Tealing has long suspected of lying in court.

The Professor of Truth is a story about stories. Through the various narratives of the characters and the different possible versions of events that Nilsen relates about the bombing, Robertson explores the way in which stories are constructed, how truthful they (and we, as storytellers,) are, and how our version of events influences the way we go about our lives.

Robertson is a skillful writer: the examination of storytelling is done with such subtlety it never threatens to undermine the main plot of the novel, while his prose has a rhythmic quality to it that allows individual sentences, often regarding seemingly prosaic matters, to sing.

Any Cop?: Yes! Last year several high profile commentators – Irvine Welsh amongst them – accused the Booker Prize of being anti-Scottish: only 3.6% of shortlistees have been Scotts. This year, I expect Robertson to be increasing that percentage*.

[Unfortunately it looks like Irvine Welsh and his fellow Scots were right – James Robertson was not nominated for the 2013 Booker Prize]

Naomi Frisby


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