Author: Chris Hammer
Publisher: Allen and Unwin
Published: 25th July 2018
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, 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.
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.
A compulsive thriller that will haunt you long after you have turned the final page.
Martin Scarsden is travelling towards a Riverina town a year after a tragic event took the lives of several townsfolk at the hands of the priest, to write a piece on the anniversary of the events. He arrives in a town with a ghost-like aura, where many businesses are shut, or failing, and where everyone has their own version of events that doesn’t quite line up with the official record that Martin has to work with, and he finds that he needs to probe further, and dig into the rumours spun by previous articles – which leads into conflicting account after conflicting account, and further conflicts with characters as he asks the wrong questions, writes a story that goes to print too quickly and brings a media storm to the town, resulting in more deaths and the discovery of more evidence and hints that the crimes committed a year ago were not as cut and dry as the first seemed – questions of motives and suspects, and whether they were linked in anyway come up throughout the novel. Through all this, Martin is quite taken with young Mandalay Blonde, whose involvement and knowledge of the people involved must be peeled away slowly, throughout the novel as the secrets of the town and its residents are uncovered in a media frenzy that seems never ending.
As the novel ambles towards a conclusion where many threads of what was once thought of as a singular, lone crime splinters off into four, and implicates crimes from the past in the concluding chapters, wrapping up the mysteries that Martin encounters and that the town has been hiding – each person with the secrets hiding them for various reasons. Occasionally, the novel touches on Martin’s past as a correspondent in war zones, and how his fellow journalists feel this has impacted him – he has been given a chance to show them he can write still.
The portrayal of the media is interesting – showing that a push to publish from an editor can force the hand of a journalist, but also, the anger at a journalist for reporting what he has been told, or in other ways not told, and how interviews can be warped for the gain of others. It shows that what is first reported or known isn’t necessarily the truth – and that sometimes it can take a while and a lot of digging to get to that truth. The conflict between the media, law and townsfolk was well written, and had notes of intrigue that kept the story going even when i thought things were wrapping up – there was always one more thing that needed to be taken care of.
It is a very long novel – though it didn’t take me forever to get through. The premise is interesting, with a very well written execution and delivery. The compelling mystery that isn’t quite what it seems presented a good opportunity to explore human nature and what people will do to keep suspicion off of themselves, and protect themselves – and in some cases, hurting others in the process. It interrogates the nature of small towns, and crime within these towns, and the impact that tragedies can have on a town and on individuals. Crime can affect anyone, anywhere, as this novel shows, and it also shows that the past will eventually catch up – for better or worse, and betray the flaws and cracks in humanity, where cover ups and secrets start to fall apart at the seams to reveal the truth. At times meandering and ambling in some scenes that felt slower than the rest of the novel, it is still a compelling story, that will capture the imagination of those who enjoy these kinds of mysteries and want to enter a world of secrets, betrayal and murder. It is one I enjoyed, though, and recommend to crime fiction fans and fans of Australian literature – there is an audience out there for it.
Allen and Unwin have kindly said they have three copies of this novel to give away via my blog. To be in the running for this giveaway, please comment on this blog post within one week of it going live, and answer within 25 words or less the following question:
Why do you think small country towns in Australian crime fiction have higher levels of crime?
The giveaway will run for a week, from today until the 1st of August, and is open to Australian residents. Remember to put your entry in via the comments section to be in the running, and send me a message via the contact me form to let me know how I can contact you if you win. Prizes will be mailed out by Allen and Unwin.