It’s a scene that you could see almost any day on the scrolling news. ‘Five die in brutal shooting’. The reassuring monotony of rural, small-town life is shattered when – for no obvious reason – a stalwart member of the tight-knit community opens fire, apparently at random.
As men lie dying around him, the killer turns his gun on the local lawman, effectively committing suicide by cop. The consequences for the victims’ families, the police officer and shooter’s own associates are catastrophic and inescapable. And then, a year later, it turns out that these killings were anything but random…
That’s the hook which drags you deep into Scrublands, a powerful exploration of the effects of these far-too-frequent events. To make matters worse, the bruised and bewildered townsfolk don’t just have the media and official investigations to deal with: their farms, businesses and livelihoods are slowly withering in the relentless heat of an ongoing drought. They struggle on – shops closing, crops failing, livestock dying – until the appearance of a big-city reporter, Martin Scarsden, rips open recent wounds becoming the catalyst for an escalating cascade of cruelty.
Since I discovered Peter Temple*, I’ve had a bit of a thing for Australian hardboiled crime-thrillers – perhaps because the hardscrabble existence of the badlands is at such odds to our superficial impression of the Aussie dream of sun, surf and a tonne of tinnies in the cooler.
Initially, Scrublands seems to be in a similar vein. It certainly starts in fine style; the opening chapters are saturated with the searing intensity of a desert drought. When wildfires rampage through an isolated farmstead you can almost feel the heat blazing from the pages. A sense of despair hangs in the scorched air as bitter truths are laid bare and ‘everyday folk’ scramble to hide their shameful secrets. Author Chris Hammer has created some truly memorable Australian characters, too – especially Codger and Snouch – who are brilliantly ambiguous; socially appalling and yet curiously engaging.
However, the second half of the novel can’t quite live up to the blistering beginning. The journalist, Scarsden, is on his last-chance assignment. He can’t maintain his objectivity and rapidly becomes entangled in events. The author may be saying something about the role of the media in reporting / exploiting such mass shootings; Scarsden is certainly a self-obsessed snake in the grass. He befriends and betrays the townfolk with casual disregard for the outcome. Yet the narrative actually rewards him for this behaviour and he takes little responsibility for the effect of his actions. If he’s a protagonist seeking redemption, then he goes a damn strange way about it.
That wouldn’t matter so much if the pace had been sustained throughout. In the latter chapters the story bogs down in repetition, explaining over and again who did what to whom and why – as if the author doesn’t trust the reader to join the dots (or perhaps made the plot too complicated). All the loose ends are tied up neatly enough, but the fiery style of the early chapters has burned itself out.
Even so, the good parts far outweigh the bad and I’ll definitely look out for this author’s next novel.
Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason
Scrublands by Chris Hammer is available at Amazon
*cheers to DaveB for introducing me to this author