Monday, August 8, 2022


DIRT TOWN by Hayley Scrivenor (Macmillan, 2022)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

On a sweltering Friday afternoon in Durton, best friends Ronnie and Esther leave school together. Esther never makes it home.

Ronnie's going to find her, she has a plan. Lewis will help. Their friend can't be gone, Ronnie won't believe it.

Detective Sergeant Sarah Michaels can believe it, she has seen what people are capable of. She knows more than anyone how, in a moment of weakness, a person can be driven to do something they never thought possible.

Lewis can believe it too. But he can't reveal what he saw that afternoon at the creek without exposing his own secret.

While deadly deeds in remote Australian small-towns surrounded by heat-struck landscapes have become more familiar to international readers in recent years thanks to the likes of Jane Harper, Chris Hammer, and Gabriel Bergmoser - not to mention the Quiet King of Aussie Crime, the great Garry Disher - newcomer Hayley Scrivenor shows there’s still plenty of mileage and fresh takes left in ‘Outback Noir’. 

Scrivenor’s excellent debut DIRT TOWN (DIRT CREEK in the United States, where it's published by Flatiron Books) is an intimate portrait of a community torn asunder by the disappearance of 12-year-old Esther Bianchi, told via kaleidoscopic narration.

Readers are plunged into Durton, a sunburnt rural town of ‘dirt and hurt’, via the eyes of Sydney detective and missing persons expert Sarah Michaels, called in to investigate Esther’s disappearance, along with several other narrative viewpoints, including Esther’s mother Constance, Esther’s two school friends Veronica “Ronnie” Thompson and Lewis Kennard, and an omniscient ‘We’: a Greek chorus of unidentified Durton children.

This latter device, along with several other aspects including Michaels’ sexuality and relationship history, bring a fresh perspective to an increasingly familiar if fascinating backdrop. But the greatest triumph of DIRT TOWN aka DIRT CREEK is the exquisite characterisation, as Scrivenor deftly brings a variety of townsfolk to vivid life, along with the intricate tapestry of their connections, secrets, feuds, prejudices, and (mis)perceptions. 

In such a tiny town, people know so much about their neighbours, but can be oh-so-wrong about them too. Esther’s disappearance is the violent tremor that sheers open the dusty veneer of Durton, and as Detective Sergeant Michaels and her partner Smithy dig into the cracks, they’re confronted with a clear suspect – Esther’s father – along with plenty of other wrongdoing. 

But why is Esther’s friend Lewis reluctant to share what he saw on the day of Esther’s disappearance? And what is really going on behind some of the town’s closed doors? 

Scrivenor deftly juggles her multiple narrators, building tension and her piercing portrait of the town. 

A character-centric crime novel imbued with hurt and heart.

Craig Sisterson is a lawyer turned features writer from New Zealand, now living in London. He’s interviewed hundreds of crime writers and talked about the genre on national radio, top podcasts, and onstage at festivals on three continents. He's been a judge of Australian, Scottish, and NZ crime writing awards, and is co-founder of Rotorua Noir. He's the author of the HRF Keating award-shortlisted non-fiction book SOUTHERN CROSS CRIME, and the series editor of acclaimed anthology DARK DEEDS DOWN UNDER. You can heckle him on Twitter. 

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