Chris Hammer has fashioned a meticulously written and propulsive crime novel, notable for its palpable sense of place, a slate of fully-drawn characters, and a meaningful denouement. Simon McDonald reviews Scrublands.
The last crime novel that actually earned the Thriller of the Year / Book of the Year banner emblazoned on its advanced reading copy cover was Jane Harper’s The Dry. Booksellers are inherently cynical about such statements, because nowadays just about every book that comes our way says the same thing. And of course, thanks to the success of The Dry, now every Australian crime novel is written “in its vein.” But there were rumblings about Chris Hammer’s book before reading copies began circulating. Industry buzz was — well, buzzing — and intensified until, finally, the book arrived in my hands.
On a flight from Hobart to Sydney, I opened to its prologue and began reading. Those two hours in the sky disintegrated. I was annoyed when the seat belt sign flashed; one of those rare times I would’ve welcomed the pilot’s voice crackling over the intercom, apologising that we’d have to circle the airport for an hour or two. Alas, no; I alighted the plane, Scrublands grasped tightly in my hands, not in my bag. I snatched moments to read during the walk to baggage claim; lost myself in its relentless grip as I waited for the train; and once I was home, I didn’t put the book down until I’d witnessed how Hammer tied all his wonderfully woven threads together. Which he does, with aplomb, that belies his status as a debutant.
So, does Scrublands earn its Thriller of the Year tag? Absolutely. Is it my favourite book of the year so far? Well, it’s only July, but since you’re asking the question: at this very moment, yes it is.
Suspenseful from start to finish, with plenty of regional colour informing its narrative, Scrublands combines sophisticated layers of mystery with an intensely scarred hero, reporter Martin Scarsden, on a quest to uncover the truth behind the events that lead to a young country town priest calmly opening fire on his congregation, which will ultimately have a profound effect on the veteran newsman. Readers who despair after a hundred pages that all the plot lines Hammer has launched can’t possibly fit together needn’t worry; they do indeed fit, and the monstrous connections that emerges between the inhabitants of the small Riverina town of Riversend are truly devastating. As he vividly portrays the harshness and beauty of the Australian landscape, Hammer keeps the twists coming and provides column-inches of background expertise on the hard business of hard news, and the psychological impact of bearing witness to, and transcribing, innumerable tragedies.
Deliberately paced and wound tight, this book will keep you awake until you’ve finished the final page. And maybe even after that. It’s relentless, it’s compulsive, it’s a book you simply can’t put down. We’re in a Golden Age of Australian crime fiction, and with Scrublands, Chris Hammer has joined the elite, up there with Jane Harper, Candice Fox, Emma Viskic, Sarah Bailey, Mark Brandi, and the grand master himself, Peter Temple.
I can't wait to hear what you think of it.