Having immersed himself in a book on the complex crimes he helped to solve in the outback town of Riversend, covered in the freestanding bestseller “Scrublands”, hard-bitten former foreign correspondent Martin Scarsden returns after an absence of more than twenty years to his home town of Silver on the east coast of Australia, where his new partner has inherited a dilapidated house in one of the many coincidences on which the novel’s convoluted plot tends to rely.
Gradually, details emerge of the family tragedy which drove Martin to leave Silver at the earliest opportunity, although some missing pieces of the puzzle are not even revealed to him until the final pages. He barely sets foot in town before being diverted from reflecting on the past by the shocking discovery of the body of his close friend from childhood, Jaspar Speight, a local estate agent, found lying in the house Martin’s partner has been renting, making her a prime suspect. In his determination to prove her innocence, Martin becomes involved in the local conflict between speculators out to make money and the native people and visitors to a spiritual retreat wishing to be left free to enjoy the natural beauty of the surf-washed shore where kangaroos graze. In the mesh of sub-plots, there are also recurring themes of revenge and guilt.
As in “Scrublands”, author Chris Hammer is strong on sense of place: “the spotted gums and cabbage tree ferns, the palm trees and staghorns and the cedars trailing vines, bellbirds chiming” in the lingering summer of the subtropical north coast of New South Wales; “the tugging dryness of a drought-ravaged inland left the far side of the coastal plain” –all quite evocative in view of the recent devastating Australian wildfires. He also captures the ambience of a somewhat run-down town with the potential for development, but at the risk of destroying local communities and damaging the environment.
Although the style can be slick and corny at times, Hammer is good at developing Martin’s character to show his changing moods, with his understandable introspection, flashbacks of nostalgia for the past mixed with bitterness, but also his compulsive drive to “get a scoop” even at the cost of appearing ruthless and insensitive (“Seven people dead. And you’re smiling!”), pursuing sometimes dubious means without hesitation in order to achieve an end which is justified if the guilty are caught.
The author puts his long experience as a journalist to good use to show how reporters vie, even within a paper, to be the first get an article published, how they live with the constant fear that a story will turn out to be false, and the risk of losing the trust of colleagues on whom they rely, may even be fired, if they fail to reveal a juicy fact in an attempt to shield someone they love.
Despite moments of high drama, there is too much repetition of banal detail apart from the denouement which ironically seems overly abrupt. The numerous plot twists are often unconvincing or rather confused. The upshot is a novel that alternates oddly between being a page turner and a bit tedious. It did not grip me as much as “Scrublands” which I would recommend reading first (although on reflection this has the same strengths and flaws, so perhaps it was the novelty that hooked me), nor in quite the same league as Jane Harper’s novels also set in Australia.