2018 Reviews · Australian · contemporary fiction · culture · mystery · new release

Book Review: Scrublands by Chris Hammer

Title: Scrublandsscrublands small

Author: Chris Hammer

Published: July 25th 2018

Publisher: Allen & Unwin

Pages: 496

Genres: Fiction, Australian, Contemporary, Crime, Mystery

RRP: $32.99

Rating: 5 stars

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.

Review:

Scrublands, penned by journalist Chris Hammer, proved to be another strong contender for my favourite crime thriller novel of the year. It is a testament to the array of rich Australian bush based crime novels that are cropping up. If you are a fan of Jane Harper, this one will fill the spot and more. Words cannot adequately express just how magnificent this crime novel proved to be. Scrublands is refined, strikingly realistic and completely compulsive.

Riversend is the small town locale where all the action plays out in this addictive novel. We quickly learn that the town of Riversend has been strangled by the onset and prolonged presence of drought. And like a stab in the heart, the town lost five residents in an awful shooting, involving the enigmatic town priest. The case and the mystery surrounding why this giving priest would open fire on five townspeople is completely baffling. The priest also took his own life, soon after the shooting, tearing apart the tiny town of Riversend in an instant. Now one year later, the wound still cuts deep and it is up to investigative journalist Martin Scarsden to compose a piece on the Riversend tragedy. What Martin encounters when he begins to collect the evidence to compile his story is conflicting to say the least. As soon as Martin makes a dent in his story, another tragedy befalls the town of Riversend, followed by a shocking discovery. As Martin throws himself further into the case and attempts to join the dots with new developments, he comes under intense scrutiny. With the media and dangerous forces breathing down his neck, Martin’s story has far reaching implications.

This one sure bowled me over right from the hooking premise and opening sequence. Scrublands will floor you, so be prepared to be dazzled by Chris Hammer early in the novel and through the whole book. I won’t shy away from admitting that I avoided reading this book. The density and size of the book first delivered a sense of trepidation, but I’m glad I saved Scrublands for an extended break away, where I had absolutely no distractions. Scrublands is the perfect getaway read. I submerged myself in this addictive novel over the course of two sittings and I couldn’t tear myself away from this fine fiction debut.

Working as a journalist for over three decades has put Chris Hammer in good standing for the release of his fiction debut. Much of Hammer’s research on his prize winning non fiction book, was centred on the impact of drought on small town rural communities and it shows. Although Scrublands is work of fiction, there is so much truth to Hammer’s writing and his depiction of the events that take place in Riversend. This is a fastidious novel that works to build a complete picture of what is happening across many country towns, across all states and territories in Australia. In fact, Riversend is simply a euphemism for so many rural locales in Australia that are grappling with the impact of drought, a decline in services and a rise in crime. As a result, Scrublands comes across as an authentic tale, tapping into issues that strike at the heart of our rural townships.

The central mystery, revealed in the opening pages of Scrublands, is incredibly vivid, raw and compelling. It sets the mood and the atmosphere for the rest of the story. It also pulled me into the novel and I have to say this grip did not relinquish until the final page. Hammer is a great plotter and he has mastered the art of the slow reveal. What I loved about Scrublands was not only the puzzling nature of the initial central mystery, but the offshoot effect. In Scrublands we are faced with potentially more than one crime source. It was much more than I ever bargained for!

Hammer has clearly drawn from his own experiences as a journalist and slotted in fragments of himself in the central protagonist, Martin Scarsden. I liked Martin’s dogged nature from the get go, the relationships he quickly carves in Riversend and the connections he makes to the town itself. Through the character of Martin and his career, we receive a scathing insight into the media world, the cut throat operations, underhanded tactics and the sensationalized reporting that often occurs in cases such as the Riversend shooting. Along with Martin, Hammer’s secondary character set are extremely well crafted. I had a such a vivid image of Harley Snouch, Mandalay, Luke and many others, thanks in turn to the descriptive tone of Hammer’s pose. And it would be unforgivable if I didn’t consider Riversend itself as the most influential character of the novel. Riversend has such presence that it hard to get this tiny blip on the map out of your mind, long after the final page of Scrublands has been turned.

I was more than happy to be enslaved by Scrublands, it is a novel that is defined by beautiful but complacent writing, striking tones and a first-rate crime mystery. There is a sense of imminence to Scrublands, particularly in its recognition of drought and the plight of small towns. This blockbuster novel has secured screenplay rights and smashed bestseller lists, I can see why, Scrublands is simply remarkable.

Scrublands by Chris Hammer was published on 25th July 2018 by Allen & Unwin. Details on how to purchase the book can be found here.

To learn more about the author of Scrublands, Chris Hammervisit here

*Thanks extended to Allen & Unwin for providing a free copy of this book for review purposes.

 

 

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