“The Professor of Truth,” the fifth novel from Scottish author and former Man Booker prize finalist James Robertson, begins with a tried-and-true trope but one that rarely fails to engage: A mysterious stranger arrives on the doorstep with a clue about the past. The visitor in this case is an American intelligence agent, dying of cancer and looking to undo some of his life’s subterfuge before he goes. The man he is visiting is Alan Tealing, a 55-year-old lecturer on English literature at a middling university in Scotland, who lost his wife and daughter two decades prior in a terrorist attack that echoes the Lockerbie airliner bombing of 1988. His life has subsequently been consumed with his reluctance to accept the postulated facts of the investigation, and his public crusade to clear the name of the man who he believes was falsely convicted for the act, Khalil Khazar.
The two men spend the entire first half of the book in one contentious conversation at the kitchen table, as intermittent chapters flash back to show us Tealing’s former happy family life and his descent into obsession. Robertson possesses the rare ability to engage both viscerally and intellectually, and for a while this novel resembles those of G.K. Chesterton or even Graham Greene, in which serious men sit around over glasses of claret to discuss the existence of God, the fate of nations and the fear of death, all while dancing around what it is that they really mean to discuss.
It’s a shame then that the second half of this would-be novel of ideas leaves the ideas behind and follows Tealing as he jets off to Australia to find the taxi driver whose testimony put Khazar behind bars. The action is ramped up as a fire sweeps across the bush and threatens to destroy any chance of Tealing ever getting to the truth, but without an emotional foundation, the book fails to finish as strong as it begins.
Throughout, though, the book impressively blends the political with the personal, and a healthy dash of the metaphysical, as well. “What was justice, and whom did it serve?” Tealing asks at one point, and although the book may never get around to an answer, Robertson knows that it’s often the pursuit of truth, regardless of the truth itself, by which we should measure the work of a man’s life.
Nicholas Mancusi’s criticism has appeared in Newsweek, Newsday, NPR, the Miami Herald and elsewhere. He has a regular column on the Daily Beast and blogs at Galleyist.com.