Complex, Compelling, Thrilling Crime: Review of Scrublands by Chris Hammer

Complex, Compelling, Thrilling Crime: Review of Scrublands by Chris Hammer

In a hot, dusty country town, a charismatic, loved priest calmly opens fire on his congregation, killing five parishioners in cold blood before being shot dead by a policeman.

A year later, journalist Martin Scarsden arrives in Riversend to write a story on the anniversary of the tragedy. But things don’t add up. Nothing he hears about the priest fits with the original version of the story, and some of the locals, angry at all the misreporting, urge him to find out the real reason behind the deadly rampage.

What has been really going on in Riversend? How can a man so universally loved suddenly commit a terrible act of violence? Can Scarsden find the truth? The odds are against him. He’s a complete outsider in a small, close-knit community that mistrusts strangers, the media even more.

In his first novel, Chris Hammer has delivered in spades. Once begun, Scrublands won’t let you go, the story spinning its deeply addictive weave around a set of very real characters brought to life by a writer well used to weighing up people after working as a journalist for 30 years.

The central character, the reporter Scarsden, is another mirror of the author as a journalist – the emotional fall-out from assignments, the trudging up and down long dusty streets in small towns searching for leads, the delicate process of extracting information from people, the tangents – every answer leading to another question until the fragments form a whole. And the pressure, of not only getting the story but getting it first and recording it truthfully and accurately.

Before Scrublands, Hammer wrote a non-fiction book about the drought-stricken Murray Basin and those experiences have clearly spilled over into this book, helping him craft the setting for Scrublands with authenticity, compassion and some tongue-in-cheek humour, like this description of Riverend’s Black Dog Motel: ‘…fluorescent tube for a light, a sagging bed with a brown spread, the chemical stench of air freshener, a grunting bar fridge and a clanking air-conditioner…’

Riversend, is a small, brooding country town of the kind that you always drive straight through and can’t put behind you quickly enough. Slowly being strangled by drought, its main street is almost a ghost town with many businesses closed, boarded up and a sad op shop full of things no-one will ever buy. The setting, from the sky to the weather and the economic gloom, looms large over the story, reminiscent of the scorching heat and small town setting of The Dry.

(If my memory serves me correctly, which it doesn’t always, the only thing I found missing from Chris Hammer’s Riversend was a dog. Thought all small towns had at least one).

The mystery of Scrublands begins in a blaze of bullets and with a simple enough mystery: why did a witty, charming man of the cloth murder a group of locals in cold blood? But it’s like a bottomless pit – the more Scarsden digs, the more puzzles emerge. A breakthrough only always leads to another question. Like all good crime, Scrublands is delightfully dense, a gorgeously tricky plot, never pushing beyond the bounds of reality. The characters are a part of the puzzle themselves, easy to misjudge mainly because like most people, they have something to hide.

There is the full spectrum of human nature in Scrublands, from best to worst – evil, good, and everything in between including people who are simply doing their best and failing at times.

Again, in the tradition of crime we love to read, the twists continue to wow right up until the final pages. Not surprisingly, Scrublands has attracted an international buzz, selling to the US, UK, Germany, France and Russia and plans are afoot to turn it into a television series.

As one bookseller commented, Scrublands is another sign we are in a Golden Age of Australian crime. Reading it is a pulsating, intense experience, not to be missed.

 

About The Author

Chris Hammer was a journalist for more than thirty years, dividing his career between covering Australian federal politics and international affairs. For many years he was a roving foreign correspondent for SBS TV’s flagship current affairs program Dateline. He has reported from more than 30 countries on six continents. In Canberra, roles included chief political correspondent for The Bulletin, current affairs correspondent for SBS TV and a senior political journalist for The Age.

His first book, The River, published in 2010 to critical acclaim, was the recipient of the ACT Book of the Year Award and was shortlisted for the Walkley Book Award and the Manning Clark House National Cultural Award.

Chris has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Charles Sturt University and a master’s degree in international relations from the Australian National University. He lives in Canberra with his wife, Dr Tomoko Akami. The couple have two children.

Purchase a copy of Scrublands here

 

 

 

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                      Publisher details

                      Scrublands
                      Author
                      Chris Hammer
                      Publisher
                      Allen & Unwin
                      Genre
                      Fiction
                      Released
                      01 April, 2019

                      Synopsis

                      Set in a fictional Riverina town at the height of a devastating drought, Scrublands is one of the most powerful, compelling and original crime novels to be written in Australia. In an isolated country town brought to its knees by endless drought, a charismatic and dedicated young priest calmly opens fire on his congregation, killing five parishioners before being shot dead himself. A year later, troubled journalist Martin Scarsden arrives in Riversend to write a feature on the anniversary of the tragedy. But the stories he hears from the locals about the priest and incidents leading up to the shooting don't fit with the accepted version of events his own newspaper reported in an award-winning investigation. Martin can't ignore his doubts, nor the urgings of some locals to unearth the real reason behind the priest's deadly rampage. Just as Martin believes he is making headway, a shocking new development rocks the town. The bodies of two backpackers - missing since the time of the church shootings - are found in a dam in the scrublands. It's the biggest story in Australia. The media descends on Riversend and Martin finds himself caught in the spotlight. His reasons for investigating the shooting have suddenly become very personal. Wrestling with his own demons, Martin finds himself risking everything to discover a truth that becomes darker and more complex with every twist. But there are powerful forces determined to stop him, and he has no idea how far they will go to make sure the town's secrets stay buried.
                      Chris Hammer
                      About the author

                      Chris Hammer

                      Chris Hammer was a journalist for more than thirty years, dividing his career between covering Australian federal politics and international affairs. For many years he was a roving foreign correspondent for SBS TV's flagship current affairs program Dateline. He has reported from more than thirty countries on six continents. In Canberra, roles included chief political correspondent for The Bulletin, current affairs correspondent for SBS TV and a senior political journalist for The Age. His first book, The River, published in 2010 to critical acclaim, was the recipient of the ACT Book of the Year Award and was shortlisted for the Walkley Book Award and the Manning Clark House National Cultural Award. Scrublands, his first novel, was published in 2018 and was shortlisted for Best Debut Fiction at the Indie Book Awards, shortlisted for Best General Fiction at the Australian Book Industry Awards, shortlisted for the UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing at the NSW Premier's Literary Awards and won the UK Crime Writers' Association John Creasey Debut Dagger Award. His second novel, Silver, was published in 2019 and was shortlisted for Best General Fiction at the Australian Book Industry Awards, shortlisted for the 2020 ABA Booksellers' Choice Book of the Year Award, and longlisted for the UK Crime Writers' Association Gold Dagger Award. Chris has a bachelor's degree in journalism from Charles Sturt University and a master's degree in international relations from the Australian National University. He lives in Canberra with his wife, Dr Tomoko Akami. The couple have two children.

                      Books by Chris Hammer

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                      1. Jeremy Green says:

                        Complex, compelling and cold. (Despite the setting in a rural,drought stricken Australian summer.)

                        This tale demands as little emotional engagement as dealing with a challenging Sudoku puzzle. The plot is wonderful but the 2-D cast of characters left me unmoved.

                        A good holiday read.

                      2. Ezra Ben-Meir says:

                        A heavy weight of a book, in only 448 pages, and gripped me, even while eating…

                        The word “crump” was a new word for me, used in the scene of shooting.

                        I even wrote a poem, (Friends) and read it out in my monthly poetry group “VoicesIsrael”.