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Book Review: Scrublands — Chris Hammer

If Australian publishing is having a moment, it’s largely thanks to Australian crime. Scrublands is another rural Australian crime novel about a depressed town reeling from the after effects of a multiple murder. Former SBS journalist Chris Hammer has taken advantage of a thirsty market with a remarkably greedy novel of his own: between the pages of Scrublands, no crime goes uncommitted. 

Veteran foreign correspondent Martin Scarsden has been grounded for a year after a traumatic event. The story that gets him back into the field, albeit on home soil, is a retrospective on the anniversary of a mass shooting in the small country town of Riversend. As Scarsden begins to get a handle on the town, it becomes clear that last year’s killer priest ago was not who he appeared to be — and that crimes around the Riverina are not yet laid to rest.

That précis really understates the matter. Normally in these sorts of novels the reader follows a character to the scene of a crime and, apart from the culprit still technically being at large, not a lot happens to them. Martin Scarsden does not have that luxury; the initial criminal is well and truly in the ground and, by novel’s end, Scarsden himself is personally involved in multiple dramas across Riversend and its surrounds.

Unusual for a first small town novel, Riversend is full of named characters with fleshed out backstories and credible motives for multiple crimes, as well as red herrings. Some of them have remarkably stupid names — Harley Snouch and the unforgettable Doug Thunkleton stick out in particular— but Riversend feels populated even as its pub has been decommissioned and everyone around it chokes on dust and heat.

This means that Riversend has the scope for multiple potential crimes, and all of that potential is realised; there is even room for more than one criminal (in the interests of mystery, there could be a single mastermind). After a while everything cascades, and you wonder why Riversend waited for Scarsden to come on the scene to kick off. Scrublands never exactly strains credulity, but Riversend is as busy a town as Midsomer in a much shorter period of time.

The strangest element of Scrublands to an Australian reader is that its lead is a journalist who interacts exclusively with outlets that actually exist in the country’s media landscape. Scarsden writes for the Sydney Morning Herald but some of his material is reserved for The Age; Channel Ten comes in for a drubbing due to tabloid practises that honestly sound more at home on Channels Seven or Nine. Hammer did not see fit to create an entirely new fictional ecosystem and, while it undoubtedly saves him time, the verisimilitude is distracting to someone with even basic knowledge of any of these organisations. 

Hammer writes in the present tense, which could have been exhausting and disorienting with the constant stream of developments, but he manages to pull it off through sheer pluck. Through sheer quantity of events, none of Hammer’s prose comes across as cliché, and it never feels like “just another small town Australian crime novel”. To capitalise on a movement while distinguishing yourself in it is a true feat, and Hammer has earned his success.

Scrublands may be overstuffed, but it’s a good story for all of its excesses. If you’ve kept up with the Australian market at all, its tale of a sunburnt and depressed rural town will be familiar, but there is so much going on that at least one development should come across as a surprise. The market may eventually grow tired of such novels — although crime is always en vogue — but Hammer’s work is crafted well enough that he should endure beyond this moment in the blazing sun.

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