Scrublands by Chris Hammer

The Blurb On The Back:

In a country town ravaged by drought, a charismatic young priest opens fire on his congregation, killing five men before being shot dead himself.

A year later, journalist Martin Scarsden arrives in Riversend to write a feature on the anniversary of the tragedy.  But the stories he hears from the locals don’t fit with the accepted view of events.

Just as Martin believes he is making headway, a shocking discovery rocks the town.  The bodies of two backpackers are found in the scrublands.  The media descends on Riversend and Martin is the one in the spotlight.

Wrestling with his own demons, Martin finds himself risking everything to uncover a truth that becomes 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.

Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.

You can order SCRUBLANDS by Chris Hammer from Amazon UK, Waterstone’s or UK.  I earn commission on any purchases made through these links.

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

40-year-old journalist Martin Scarsden has been suffering from PTSD after something went wrong while he was reporting from Gaza and he found himself trapped in a car boot for 3 days.  The PTSD has affected his reporting but his editor at the Sydney Morning Herald is willing to look out for him and sends him to Riversend, a small rural town between Melbourne and Sydney where it’s coming up to the anniversary of when the town’s priest – Byron Swift – shot and killed 5 men in his congregation before being killed by the town’s policeman, Robbie Haus-Jones.  The massacre was covered by Martin’s colleague, D’Arcy Defoe, who discovered that there were allegations of child abuse against Swift and it was widely believed that this was what drove him to kill.  

Martin’s assignment is to cover how Riversend is doing one year on.  It’s a straightforward piece – speak to the townsfolk and find out how they feel about what happened – but when he gets there, he finds that Riversend is not what he imagined.  Slowly dying due to prolonged drought, there aren’t many people still living in or around the town but those townspeople he speaks to – including Mandalay ‘Mandy’ Blonde (who runs the local book store and cafe) and Harley Snouch (the town drunk who raped Mandy’s mother) – do not believe the accusations of child abuse.  Even Fran Landers, whose owns the local general store and whose husband Craig was one of the victims, says that Swift was a good man and she cannot understand why he did what he did. 

The longer Martin stays in Riversend, the more he realises that there was a lot that Defoe missed in his original report and when Sergeant Herb Walker from the nearby town of Bellington lets him in on some secrets from Swift’s past, he knows he’s got the makings of a dynamite story.  But other reporters are already circling Riversend for their own ‘one year on’ stories and when the bodies of two hitchhikers are found on Harley Snouch’s land in the Scrublands, the true story of what happened a year ago is going to blow up out of Martin’s control …

Chris Hammer’s debut crime novel (the first in a trilogy) is a solidly written whydunit rather than a whodunit but the depiction of a town dying from drought is more convincing than the human characters, who are thinly drawn.  The pacing is thrown off by key strands of information being withheld back until the final quarter, some of the journalistic practices were unconvincing while the tentative romance between Martin and Mandy was a bit icky.

Having been a journalist himself, Hammer writes about the industry with an experienced and cynical eye and I enjoyed the details about how Martin plans to tackle the assignment.  However while the PTSD backstory should give Martin some colour, it doesn’t really go anywhere – even when the details of what happened get revealed it’s thin gruel that doesn’t convince.  Equally, as the rest of the press pack descended on Riversend although I believed in the competitiveness between the journalists and Martin enjoying being the centre of attention, given the foreshadowing I was expecting more from his professional relationship with Defoe than what emerges on the page.  I also found it difficult to believe that Martin’s newspaper wouldn’t do a basic fact check on a criminal conviction before running with a story, which did throw me out of the novel.

As the point of view character, Martin is the best developed with his doubts about the ‘manliness’ of his profession and his future.  In contrast the supporting characters were, for me, pretty much sketches.  Mandy is very much a love interest, which I found a bit icky given there’s over 10 years difference between them.  Hammer tries to give Mandy a femme fatale quality, but it didn’t convince me and she is largely there to provide backstory for the plot and other characters.  Snouch is better drawn but if the intention is to make him an ambiguous character, then it failed for me because he’s not quite malign enough or helpful enough to convince.  Robbie is another character with a lot of potential but does not have enough page time to grow, which is a shame given revelations in the final quarter of the book.

Pacing wise, I thought it was a shame that so much information doesn’t get divulged until the final quarter of the book.  I think some of it is because there are so many sub-plots in the book that they don’t get space to breathe and develop (especially the biker storyline) – either they needed to be front loaded earlier on or be dropped because the pay off just isn’t there.  Equally, the fact that 2 backpackers went missing shortly before Swift carried out the massacre was something I felt needed to be highlighted more than it is in the book because it plays out like an after thought.

There is some solid writing in the book.  The depiction of Riversend is well done – I believed in the dying town being choked by drought and the brief revival that comes when the journalists and news crews come back.  Hammer also does well at depicting the isolation of life in the Scrublands and a scene where a bush fire comes through that area is genuinely terrifying.

All in all, it is not a bad debut and there is plenty here to make me interested in reading Hammer’s next crime novel.  However, although this is the first in a trilogy I have to say that I have my doubts that there is enough here to go into a sequel so while I wouldn’t mind checking it out, I wouldn’t rush to check it out.  

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