Scrublands by Chris Hammer (pbk)

Review by Kim Forrester, 20 August 2019

Fans of Jane Harper’s The Dry will love this debut crime novel by Chris Hammer. As well as a similar setting — a drought-stricken country town in Australia —Scrublands is similarly fast paced, full of unexpected twists and turns, and an ending you won’t see coming.

But the tale is more complex than Harper’s and is told from the perspective of a 40-year-old journalist, who has an intriguing backstory.

Set during the devastating Millennium drought, the story focuses on an appalling crime committed in a small (fictional) Riverina town — the murder of five men in church by a charismatic and popular young priest with a gun, who, in turn, is shot dead by police.

When the novel begins it’s a year after the fact, and newspaper reporter Martin Scarsden has been sent to Riversend to write a colour piece on the impact of the crime on the town’s residents. It’s the kind of “soft” job he (and his editor) hopes will allow him to rediscover his journalistic mojo, for Scarsden is battle-weary and psychologically damaged after a stint as a foreign correspondent in the Gaza Strip, where he was held hostage.

Within days of his arriving in town, the bodies of two German backpackers are discovered in a local dam and suddenly the world and its media are in Riversend wanting to know more. Scarsden has the inside scoop — and the reliable contacts — and his front page stories dominate the news agenda.

But then it all gets a bit messy, and he becomes front page news himself, when one of his contacts commits suicide and blames Scarsden for his decision.

Scrublands is brilliantly plotted — but it has to be. There are two very different crimes at the heart of it, which makes for a convoluted story, but there are other asides (or red herrings), including a decades-old rape, that add to the complexity.

Occasionally it is difficult to follow what is going on and I lost the thread of who did what to whom and why, but it hardly matters. The story is so fast paced and so evocative — of small town life in places starved of economic investment, of frenzied media packs chasing ratings and circulation figures, of scorching summer days when the temperature hits 30C before 10am — it feels like a totally immersive experience.

But it’s the characters that make this book such a gripping read. Scarsdale is damaged but he’s not without heart: he still cares about the job, even if he sometimes does dubious things, and he’s prepared to put in the hard graft to get a good story. He even has a romantic fling with the local small town beauty (an interesting character in her own right), perhaps the only “off” note in an otherwise atypical crime novel.

The town’s local characters — the general store owner, the local cop, the down-and-outer who wanders the streets, the teenage thugs, the hermit and the ASIO agent — are all incredibly well drawn (even if their names are all a bit odd). Even the dead priest, who we only ever hear about via third parties, is deeply intriguing, the kind of person you’re anxious to know more about.

And the town of Riversend, with its closed down pub, crumbling motel and shops that only open a couple of times a week, feels like a very real place on the map.

Combine that with a twisty narrative, authentic dialogue and skillful writing and you have a book that’s difficult to put down. It’s an ambitious first novel, and one that’s not without its faults, but it’s an impressive debut. Pack it in your suitcase if you’re looking for an entertaining summer read.

This is an edited version of a review that first appeared on Kim’s blog Reading Matters earlier this year. You can read the original here.

Chris Hammer, Scrublands (Wildfire, 2019), 978-1472255143, 496 pp, paperback.

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