Scrublands by Chris Hammer: angel of death

In this debut novel, Chris Hammer makes good use of both his first-hand knowledge of journalistic procedures, and his travels through the Murray-Darling Basin of Eastern Australia to research the impact of the 2008-9 drought.
Like Jane Harper’s “The Dry”, with which it is often compared, although with a distinctly different plot, this is another novel on the crimes triggered by the unrelenting heat and hardship caused by lack of predictable rain in rural Australia.

Traumatised by an ordeal suffered in Gaza, with questions over his ability to hold down his post, once successful foreign correspondent Martin Scarsden is given the supposedly straightforward task of covering how the run-down, drought-ridden town of Riversend is coping a year after its charismatic priest has inexplicably gunned down five local residents, before being shot dead himself by the local copper. Despite his grim motel room at “The Black Dog”, Martin finds himself reluctant to leave, caught up in the desire to find out exactly what motivated the priest Byron Swift to commit such an ungodly crime, but his quest is complicated by the apparent tendency of virtually all the local inhabitants to lie and have something to hide. Using the present tense throughout to heighten the tension, Chris Hammer keeps the suspense going by gradually revealing information, but keeps us guessing until the end as to the precise reason for the atrocity. Also, with the local population so divided against Swift, some of those with most reason to hate him being most surprisingly keen to describe him as a kind of saint, the priest’s true character remains an enigma almost to the end.

Initially slow-paced, but punctuated with dramatic events like the “hook” of the shooting outside the church in the prologue, the plot twists start to come so thick and fast that I began to feel bombarded. Martin’s frequent repeated summaries of events, either in his own mind or to update another character, prove very useful, making me wonder whether some editor advised this. If the book is made into a film, as I think is planned, some of this clarification may be lost.

Although the style at times seems formulaic and clichéd and some characters stereotyped, together with the, for female readers at least, common male fantasy of a romance with an impossibly beautiful much younger woman, the novel is saved partly by the vivid, closely observed descriptions of the landscape. “The sun slams down like a hammer on the anvil of the car park”; “where the river should be…there is a mosaic of cracked clay, baked and going to dust….There is nothing to hear; the heat has sucked the life from the world: no cicadas, no cockatoos, not even crows, just the bridge creaking and complaining as it expands and contracts in thrall to the sun”. Perhaps a surfeit of alliteration, but vivid and evocative writing. Crossing the barren stretch which separates Riversend from the greener civilisation of Bellington, with the temperature over 40 degrees, Martin hallucinates that his car is stationary, with world moving beneath him at the speed of 110 kilometres.

The author is also strong on the moral dilemmas and contradiction of being a journalist. Martin gets a buzz from being the first to submit a scoop, but his hubris over a run of good luck is shattered by the realisation that he has inadvertently published errors which may harm a third party, but cannot expect any support from bosses concerned only to save their own skins. Martin inhabits a “dog eat dog” world of wheedling, lying and moral blackmail to extract information, with the use of subterfuge to prevent others from getting hold of a story before there has been time to file it. He begins to see his past self in others, from the time when he was able to observe and therefore report brutal events so dispassionately, whereas post-Gaza he finds himself discarding details likely to cause pain to others, even though, at the risk of breaking a relationship, he can’t resist the drive to expose the truth as a whole – “It’s what I do”.

This succeeds well as a page-turning yarn but needs to be more concise, with the conclusion a little less neatly sewn up, shorn of corny romance, and devoting more care to the development of Bryon Swift’s puzzling character to be on a par with, say, a Graham Greene classic.

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