Chris Hammer, Allen & Unwin, 2018, ISBN 978-1-76063-298-4, 486pp
Now, here’s a book that, if you enjoy a good thriller, you will want to read. I am usually sceptical and reserved in my use of the phrase “page turner” but this book is indeed a page turner. Its page turning quotient is up there with the best. Chris Hammer was a journalist for thirty years and has clearly homed his writing skills over that period. He was a foreign correspondent for SBS TV's current affairs program Dateline, the chief political correspondent for The Bulletin and a political journalist for The Age.
Scrublands is not his first book though it is his first work of fiction. He was born in Tasmania but grew up and went to school in Canberra. His first book was The River (2011) which is about the impact of the decline of Australia’s rivers and the people who live beside them. It won the ACT Book of the Year Award and was shortlisted for the Walkley Book Award and the Manning Clark House National Cultural Award. In The Coast (2012), Hammer takes us on a contemplative trip up Australia’s east coast. This, his third book, is something different.
The novel is set in a fictional town, Riversend, in the Riverina. Hammer paints a compelling picture of a town that is isolated and stricken by drought. Hammer never lets the reader forget that Riversend’s landscape is dry, almost barren, and that eking a living in Riversend is hard. Even the name of the town is portentous. The central character in the book is Michael Scarsden a journalist who has troubles of his own that derive from his time reporting in conflict zones in Palestine. He arrives in the town on the first anniversary of an event that brutally shook the Riversend community. A young priest had opened fire on members of his congregation killing five of them. His brief is to find out and report on how the small town is coping in the wake of the tragedy. As he goes about his journalistic business, he very quickly finds that the accepted version of events does not square with what he finds when he talks to the townspeople.
Any good journalist will pursue a story to its end and Scarsden is a good journalist. As he unpicks the story the plot is complicated by the discovery of two German backpackers who have been missing since the time of the killings by the priest. This new information results in a media storm and an entertaining side-plot relates to the way in which Scarsden interacts with the other journalists who fly-in to cover events. The story proceeds by twists and turns and additional parts of the plot emerge gradually. But while the plot is complex, Hammer’s telling of the story is quite clear. His characters are realistically drawn, his ability to describe a landscape is uncannily good, and he draws all the strands of the story together in a way that works well and that does not try one’s credibility or patience.
I am sure that Janice has piles of copies of this book at Moruya Books. Proceed there immediately and snap up this book. If you do not enjoy it, then there is no hope for you. I read it in three sittings; it is, as I say a page-turner.