Scrublands by Chris Hammer

“He stands and looks back along the highway, wiping sweat from his brow. The horizon is lost in a haze of dust and heat, but he feels he can se the curvature of the earth, as if he’s standing on a headland looking out to sea.”

The initial appeal of this book was its setting. Publicity for this new release mentioned the story was based in a small Riverina town, and for me that set the book apart from countless others.

Maybe the last thing I needed was yet another book, considering I already have so many waiting to be read, but that Riverina connection was too much of a temptation.

I live alongside the Riverina region, and Gloria grew up in an area very much like the town at the centre of this book. The landscape (as briefly described in the opening quote above) is very familiar and reflects my own immediate impression when I experienced it during my first visit more than 25 years ago.

Riversend is a struggling drought-stricken small town, thrown into the national spotlight when its priest shoots five of the locals outside the church prior to a Sunday service.

Approaching the anniversary of the tragedy, city journalist Martin Scarsden is given the job of discovering how the town is coping a year later. After arriving in the town he discovers there may be a more important story to tell.

He soon finds one seemingly straight forward crime becomes increasingly complicated when previously unknown crimes, with possible connections to the church-side murders, come to light. The formerly closed case has to be revisited to address the new discoveries.

I loved the build up of complexity within this story; that the author could bring in several new plot strands, without creating confusion, before bringing them all together into a coherent and plausible  conclusion, that makes sense of the original shooting.

Most of the crime novels I’ve read to date have told their stories through the perspective of the police investigation. Scrublands varies this approach by giving a journalist’s eye view, touching on the difficulties faced when reporting a currently active investigation. That journalist, Martin Scarsden, needs to make decisions on the spot to make sure he meet news deadlines before competitors get in first.

… in his copy, the ambiguities of the real world are banished, all is black and white, there are no shades of grey. The words flow in a torrent, almost writing themselves: the evidence, the summation, the conviction. Guilty as proved.

Those decisions, made in inevitable haste, aren’t always the wisest, potentially muddying the investigative waters, and alienating the reporter from those he needs to trust in a town full of secrets, rumours and ill-founded assumptions.

I think I must have heard about this book from the publisher’s newsletter. Having worked for that publisher for a short time back in the 90s, I like to keep an eye on their output. This book alone has repaid that ongoing interest. It gave me one of the most enjoyable reading experiences of the year so far.

The only caution I would offer to anyone who might take my comments as a recommendation to read it for themselves is that the book includes occasional very strong coarse language, but nothing more extreme than what I frequently hear at work. Others, not exposed to that kind of thing on a regular basis might find its usage in the book a bit confronting.


Publisher’s website with book blurb and author details: