Saturday, August 11, 2018


SCRUBLANDS by Chris Hammer (Allen & Unwin, 2018)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

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, which becomes the biggest story in Australia. The media descends on Riversend and Martin is now the one in the spotlight. His reasons for investigating the shooting have suddenly become very personal.

If you're an Australian author who sets a crime novel in the rural backblocks, particularly during one of the all-too-regular droughts, it's now inevitable that your book will be compared to Jane Harper's terrific, award-hoarding debut THE DRY - widely considered 'the crime novel' of last year.

So former television foreign correspondent Chris Hammer is facing something of a double-edged sword with the release of his first novel, SCRUBLANDS. Harper's success has the crime world casting its eyes downunder, opening doors for other writers just as Ian Rankin and Val McDermid provided a beachhead for Tartan Noir, and Henning Mankell and Stieg Larsson did for Scandi-crime. But then other 'Terror Australis' (Australian crime) tales will get kneejerk comparisons to THE DRY, especially if like in Hammer's case, the setting is the tinder-dry landscapes of the Australian bush.

Let's just front-foot things: SCRUBLANDS may share a similar setting to Harper's debut, but Hammer's first novel is completely it's own beast. This is no copycat or coat-tailing effort. SCRUBLANDS meshes sociological insights, literary stylings, and a multi-layered crime tale into an epic novel that’s simply superb. I read it a few weeks ago, and now it's been released I'm seeing all sorts of 'crime novel of the year' type hype building. For me, it's certainly in the conversation.

Martin Scarsden is sent to drought-stricken Riversend by his Sydney editor, ostensibly to write a human-interest tale about the town’s recovery a year after a church shooting, but also to gauge his own recovery after a near-death experience in the Middle East. Some locals tell Martin there’s more to the story than the ‘paedophile priest’ narrative that followed the shooting. When the bodies of two backpackers are found the national media descends, messily picking at the dying town’s carcass. Can Martin find the truth among all the lies and manipulations, from townsfolk and various authorities?

There is a lot going on in this book, which is more absorbing than page-whirring. Hammer draws readers in with an unusual tale that has a lot of layers and interwoven stories. The inciting incident of the one-year anniversary of a hard-to-explain shooting is just a small part of what the book becomes.

For me, Hammer brought rural Australia, its towns and people and  issues faced, to vivid life with a sweat-inducing authenticity. While this is Hammer's first novel, the experienced correspondent has actually written non-fiction books , including one, THE RIVER, where he takes readers "on a journey through Australia's heartland, following the rivers of the Murray-Darling Basin, recounting his experiences, his impressions, and, above all, stories of the people he meets along the way".

It's clear that Hammer has used his time spent researching THE RIVER and experiencing first-hand the lives of those living in such areas while building the world of SCRUBLANDS. There's an eclectic selection of small-town characters, each who are pleasingly layered. Even if some are a little larger-than-life or introduced in highly unusual ways, they don't feel cartoonish. There's a reality here.

So while comparisons to THE DRY are unavoidable, for me Hammer’s debut reaches even further, taking the baton from the great Peter Temple. SCRUBLANDS is crime writing at its finest.

Craig Sisterson is a lawyer turned feature writer from New Zealand, now living in London. In recent years he’s interviewed hundreds of crime writers and talked about the genre on national radio, top podcasts, and onstage at books festivals on three continents. He has been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards and the McIlvanney Prize, and is founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards.

No comments:

Post a Comment