Book Review: Silver — Chris Hammer

Chris Hammer brings us back to the world of Martin Scarsden, and this time he provides fewer crimes, more flashbacks, and burdens his lead character with a lot more flaws. It’s a good time for an Australian journalist to go back to his hometown, and a good time for readers to check in with Doug Thunkleton.

Six weeks after the events of Scrublands, journalist Martin Scarsden finds himself on the way back to Port Silver, the hometown that he abandoned in his teens, to start a new life with Mandalay Blonde in the clifftop mansion that she has freshly inherited. Immediately upon arrival, Martin finds Mandy in the company of a freshly murdered body — one of his high school best friends — and sets out to unravel the mystery of who killed the real estate agent, providing it wasn’t Mandy herself.

The short time elapsed between Scrublands and Silver is a sticking point, as Martin and Mandy have made huge life decisions in that tiny gap. Time and again in these pages Martin proves himself to be a decent surrogate father, but a terrible boyfriend and life partner. He teeters on the brink of pure neglect for a woman who is reasonably traumatised and literally accused of murder.
Scarsden is a frustrating character, but that is mostly understandable given his circumstances, and both he and Hammer are making a conscious effort to improve. 

The case that he’s on is layered, and the reckoning that he comes to with his past is well integrated with the novel as a whole rather than feeling patched in. It may have been a shortsighted to lend the man a history that is remarkably similar to one of the denizens of Riversend, which itself bore a startling resemblance to another mass market crime novel of recent years, but it doesn’t derail the work as a whole.

Silver is a sleek second novel, craftily plotted and set in a seaside area significantly different to the arid desert noir that Australian readers have grown accustomed to. Hammer has handily provides town maps in both of his novels to date, and a major departure this time around is that Port Silver appears to have houses in it. This is an important distinction, as Port Silver does seem liveable and, unlike a rural town inland, it is in hot demand from developers. Scarsden has a diverse cast of people to interview, including a walk-on appearance from the town’s resident arty homosexuals, and the indigenous family that he never knew that he had. Hammer’s ability to take the small town and twist it into something fresh and new is what raises Silver above both its predecessor and much of its competition.

The only real detriment of Silver is that there is at least one scene inserted for the benefit of American readers, wherein Scarsden is pulled over by a policeman and the tension is ratcheted to make a reader suspect that he is in danger of being killed; entirely apart from the fact that Australians do not keep registration papers in their cars, nor have to provide them at traffic stops, the country does not have a culture of police pulling over cars and shooting the drivers dead. It is one scene that rings false in a book that has far more outlandish, but altogether more credible, schemes afoot.

In Silver, Hammer has synthesised many of the elements that make for an effective crime series: a multifaceted lead character, a compelling location and, peculiar to Hammer’s work, a vast tapestry of criminality to select from. Scrublands was good, but Silver is on another level. Where Scrublands was yellow and dry, Silver is silver blue and damp, sometimes outright wet — and take your pick whether that’s rain, seawater, or blood. It’s a good place to be. 

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