5 stars “It is, he knows full well, growing into a perfect summer story in the great tradition of Lindy Chamberlain and Schapelle Corby. A heady mixture of murder, religion and sex… a beautiful femme fatale to feed to the cameras, as well as perhaps the most crucial element of all: mystery. Why did Byron Swift open fire? Who did murder the pretty young backpackers? Were they raped and tortured, as alleged by the competition papers? All around Australia, at barbecues and bars, at cafes and canteens, at hairdressers and in taxis, everyone and their dog will be advancing their own half-baked theories of what happened and who was responsible. Talkback radio will be having a field day, the internet will be spawning an equal measure of sick jokes and conspiracy theories.”
Scrublands is the first novel by Australian journalist and award-winning author, Chris Hammer. It’s January so it’s hot in the NSW Riverina. Ex-foreign correspondent, Martin Scarsden has been sent to Riversend to do a story on how the town is coping in the aftermath of a shooting massacre. It will soon be a year since the local pastor, Byron Swift, shot down five members of the community. Allegations of paedophilia had been lodged against him but, as he was shot dead by the town’s constable, these were never explored further. Nor was Swift’s motive ever discovered.
Martin wanders through what looks like a dying town, a town in the choke-hold of a crippling drought, trying to get a feel for his story. “He looks away to the horizon, shimmering and ill-defined under the harsh sunlight, the sun that should lift all shadows but instead blurs the edges of the world, renders the horizon debatable, so that it’s impossible to tell land from sky.” A year ago, Martin's colleague did little to endear himself to the townsfolk, so while most are not openly hostile, neither is he welcomed with open arms.
Martin is grateful that the young constable who brought Swift down gives him such a candid interview, but he finds himself distracted from his original brief, and not only by the beautiful bookstore owner: he can’t help speculating on just what led to the shootings, and whatever anyone tells him only increases his confusion. And who can he really trust to be completely honest, anyway? Everyone seems to have their own agenda.
Then two partially-decomposed bodies are found in a dam in the scrublands, and things get really interesting.
Hammer easily conveys the dusty country town with its boarded-up shopfronts, its attendant desperation but also its quirky locals. He manages to include in his tale suicides, bushfires, a war criminal, some dangerous bikies, a kidnapping, a fatal car accident, a confession (or two), a $15,000 bail bond, quite a lot of poor journalism, a locked room, an ASIO operative and a conman. His protagonist is no saint: he’s impulsive, not as thorough as he should be, and perhaps somewhat tactless, but ultimately, his heart seems to be in the right place.
Hammer expertly builds his story: each chapter adds another wrinkle to what at first looks to be a fairly simple tragedy, turning it into an ever more intriguing mystery. He gives the reader a few red herrings, and so many twists that neck injuries may result. Some excellent (if rather black) comic relief is provided by Martin’s initial encounter with Codger Harris, and later with the drunken visiting magistrate, and the map of Riversend is both necessary and welcome. Clever and topical, this is an excellent work of Australian crime fiction.