Scrublands, by Chris Hammer.
Ex-Journalist Chris Hammer’s debut novel is very timely, given Australia’s current ‘highest temperatures since records began’ problems: a huge drought has sucked the small New South Wales town of Riversend dry and all living things are suffering – as they currently are in real life at this moment, thanks to the vicious effects of climate change.
Mr Hammer writes so vividly of Riversend’s drought and its horrendous effects that a beer would have been good to cool myself down as I read; in fact I was tempted to don sunnies and a broad-brim hat with corks to block out the searing heat and unrelenting sunlight that dominates his story – but an inexplicable mass murder actually takes centre stage, and though the murderer is already dead, there are still too many unanswered questions a year on to let sleeping dogs lie.
Journalist Martin Scarsden has been sent by his editor to write a piece on Riversend a year after a supposed pillar of society, the popular reverend Byron Swift opened fire on the steps of his church one Sunday morning and killed five parishioners, before being killed himself by his friend, the local policeman. Martin has been instructed to find out how the town is faring, how people are surviving now after losing five good men in an apparently mindless rampage by a caring and charismatic churchman who supposedly cared deeply for his community – and how they now subsist in drought conditions.
Martin has his own demons to fight after a stint in the Middle East, returning to Australia with PTSD and a decided lack of enthusiasm for his job; he and his editor are hoping that this piece will re-ignite enthusiasm for the investigative journalism at which he excels, and for his life which doesn’t hold the same enjoyment anymore. He discovers that Riversend is a dying town where the businesses can only open on Tuesdays and Thursdays; it has a surly, unresponsive population (we’ve already answered all these questions!’), and the more information he obtains, the more mysterious the priest’s motives appear, especially as he was accused of paedophilia before his death.
Then the bodies of two young German Backpackers are discovered in a private dam belonging to one of the old families in the area, and incorrect information given to him for the story results in Martin being sacked: he is now ‘disgraced former journalist’ Martin Scarsden. Things can’t get worse, one would think, but they do, and Mr Hammer drives the reader at breakneck speed to his novel’s conclusion (it even rains on the last page, thank you Jesus!), never letting up the suspense until all is finally revealed – but I have to say that, despite some great Aussie characters and a wonderfully evocative portrayal of small-town Australia, his final revelations are unconvincing – he has too many villains, and keeping tabs on them slows the action considerably for the last chapters of the story - which is a shame, but I’m sure he’ll get it right next time. FOUR STARS.