Chris Hammer, Allen & Unwin, 2020, ISBN 978-1-76087-741-5, 466pp a review by Trevor Moore
Chris Hammer keeps himself under the pump. This is his third novel in as many years. I have previously reviewed 2018’s Scrublands and 2019’s Silver in these pages and given them a good rap. Both those novels had as their main character Martin Scarsden and his partner (at least from the end of Scrublands) Mandalay Blonde. These two characters are larger than life; one cannot imagine any pair of people with heavier backstories. When I reviewed Silver, I commented that “it’s a dead cert that the Scarsden character is autobiographical but possibly more in the imagination than in fact.” Hammer was a journalist for more than thirty years. He reported from more than 30 countries on six continents for SBS. In Canberra his roles included being chief political correspondent for The Bulletin, senior writer for The Age and Online Political Editor for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald. In the middle of the book he has the Mandalay Blonde character say “she sees it then, experiences it: the thrill of the story, like she's an explorer entering an unknown world, the first outsider to set eyes on a new civilisation, already preparing a report to the Royal Geographic Society. For the first time she seen Martin's world from the inside, the reporter on the scent of a big story. And she feels it too, the euphoria. She feels the intoxication and she feels the power.” I’m pretty sure that’s about the author as much as it is about the character.
Chris Hammer had been to Moruya to speak at one of Moruya Books’ literary lunches and I had met him briefly then. But I had the chance last week to speak to him one on one about the sequence of three novels and what might be coming next. All three novels fairly romp along, and the plots are formed from several interwoven narratives. I wondered how he set about writing. He divides the writers of fiction into two categories: the “plotters” and the “panters”. The “plotters” work out their story, their characters and timelines carefully in advance. They leave nothing to chance. The “panters” write by the seats of their pants. Hammer is a “panter”; he sits down and writes, and sees where the Muse takes him. He doesn’t set himself word counts; he is simply addicted to writing. If he gets stuck, he goes for a walk.
I asked him whether the Martin Scarsden character was autobiographical. I got the sense that the answer was “partially”. As a journalist, Hammer’s writing needed to be based on facts. The process of journalism involves checking one’s facts and on getting things right. As a novelist, he says, you can make stuff up. Nevertheless, his view is that even if you sacrifice accuracy in a novel, it remains important to be authentic. It is, of course, a privilege of the novelist to create any character he likes, and with any backstory he (or she) cares to create. Trust is the third novel featuring the two central characters, and I wondered whether Hammer had taken his characters as far as they can reasonably go. He indicated that a future novel might be set in the same Australian universe as the first three, but the Martin and Mandy characters would play minor roles. That one will be one to look forward to … and given the rate at which he works I am expecting it in 2021.
But back to Trust … after the excitement of the story in Silver, Martin and Mandy have settled down in Port Silver (which is somewhere north of Sydney on the central coast) with Mandy’s son from a previous relationship, Liam. Life seems perfect. But perfect is not a good state for the novelist’s art and the plot of Trust opens with Martin on the beach with Liam where he listens to a message from Mandy. The message is “one long scream, full of desperation and danger, ten seconds long.” He returns home to find Mandy gone and an unconscious man lying on the floor. The story unfolds over the next 10 days, the action taking place in Sydney. A good novel should always be plausible, at least in some context. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings may be fantastical but it’s conceptually consistent. Trust is not fantastical; it’s entirely possible. It may even be real. If it is, then we will never know. It’s a story of corruption, fraud and the gullibility of people who shouldn’t be gullible.
It’s a great story that maintains its pace and draws you in. It’s a compelling read. It’s not a page turner, that term that is overused by breathless publishing marketing executives. It’s possible to stop reading it before midnight and then pick it up the following day. Francis Bacon said that “some books should be tasted, some devoured, but only a few should be chewed and digested thoroughly.” This is a book that can be devoured, though it should be carefully chewed as it is devoured. Hammer draws his characters well, and he writes in a style that is engaging and easy to read. Notwithstanding the “panter” approach he takes, he must spend much time reading and re-reading to ensure the consistency of his plots. I am a cynical fellow and there is nothing I like more than to find an anachronism or an impossible birthdate or some other inconsistency in a novel. Finding one rarely spoils my enjoyment of a book, but it makes me feel that I have got one up on the author. Which is nonsense. And there are no inconsistencies that I can find in the plot of Trust. It’s just a bloody good read. Janice at Moruya Books will have them piled high in her inestimable emporium that is an ornament to the bookseller’s trade. Go there and buy one. You don’t need to have read Scrublands and Silver beforehand but if you can get hold of them then it would be worth reading them first. This is a good novel, well told by a really good writer. Buy it and make him rich.
Chris Hammer is a leading Australian crime fiction novelist, author of international bestsellers Scrublands and Silver. His new book, Trust, is now published in Australia and New Zealand and internationally from early 2021.