TL;DR – Crime mystery novel that has been lauded for its realism in depicting a town devastated by tragedy and drought. The story is solid but I struggled to finish it (see full review below for reasons). In the end a passable read.
On a blistering, hot morning in Riversend, much-respected priest, Byron Swift, is getting ready for Sunday service. Wearing his casual clothes, he greets early arrivals and engages in friendly small talk. When Craig Landers, owner of Riversend’s convenience store, arrives with some of his mates from out of town, Byron shakes his hand, smiles, and they talk for a few minutes. When they finish Byron excuses himself and heads into the church to prepare for service. A few minutes later, the priest re-emerges wearing his robes, a crucifix reflects the sunlight and in his hands he holds a high powered rifle with a scope and proceeds to fire calmly and methodically on his parishioners. Five people are killed before the local constable arrives on the scene and shoots Byron dead.
Twelves months later, Martin Scarsden, a journalist, visits the drought-stricken town of Riversend to do a story on the one-year anniversary of the mass shooting. The story is only meant to focus on how the community is recovering, but it becomes evident that it has never recovered because the full truth is still yet to be told.
The debut novel by Chris Hammer has a lot going for it, even if readers will see striking similarities with The Dry by Jane Harper. He captures outback Australia and a small country town dying from drought in a manner that will make your throat feel parched. A former journalist himself, Hammer is able to throw the reader into his main character, Martin Scarsden, and capture what it is like to be a journo and the methodical mind that is required for the profession. Scarsden also has his own mental and emotional issues, and this allows for a layered character that readers should find intriguing.
There is also care in creating a believable setting. A lovely map of this fictional town is provided at the beginning of the book and its description as Scarsden explores his surroundings comes to life off the pages. Outside of town, the scrublands is a place that is desolate and vast and will make you feel like it can swallow you whole without anyone ever noticing. When a bushfire comes screaming through the scrublands, Hammer describes the series of events as the townspeople rush to stop the devastation with such wonderful detail that you’ll be wanting to check the smoke alarms in your own home.
The plot is also intricate and should keep you guessing until the end. The mystery of why Byron Swift goes on his violent rampage and the many secrets each of the townsfolk are hiding allows the story to continue ticking over and suitably the pages as well. The many sub-plots almost seek to undo the ending, but Hammer is able to tie everything together in a way that is believable if fantastic in some areas.
All the above are strong reasons why Scrublands has done so well and Hammer awarded the 2019 John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger by the UK Crime Writers’ Assocation.
Where I feel it came undone was in how Hammer describes his female characters. His depiction of male characters is strong. Scarsden, Swift, Robbie Haus-Jones (the constable), Codger Harris and Harley Snouch are portrayed with depth. But the female characters didn’t grab me at all. The main female character, Mandalay Blonde (the name itself not doing me any favours) is portrayed as having “Hollywood” good looks. She has some level of complexity in that she’s a single mother and her own mum was allegedly raped. Unfortunately, she’s a “damsel-in-distress” type character and every time Scarsden sees her he’s amazed at how beautiful she is. In fact, in one paragraph of the book, Hammer describes Mandalay from the perspective of Scarsden as beautiful twice. He doesn’t even bother using a different adjective.
And, of course, Scarsden ends up sleeping with her. This was enough to take me out of the story on numerous occasions. Blonde plays a pivotal role in the story but she’s portrayed as helpless, in need of saving, and I found it annoying how Scarsden interacts with her. Her depth felt artificial as much as the description of how she looks.
If you can overlook how Hammer writes his female cast (to be honest, there aren’t many and that’s probably because he’s just not good at it) then the rest of the story can carry you through.
2.5 out of 5.