Wednesday 3 July 2019


Aussie Noir is another trend having a moment just now. Scrublands came out last year to much fan fare, and it caught my attention. I'd fondled it in bookshops and read the prologue. It seemed a bit much, a bit far fetched, so I put it back down.

Recently I saw Chris Hammer speak at Newcastle Writers Festival 2019 and my interest was piqued again. Chris read that prologue and this time I was intrigued. Soon after I found the Scrublands audiobook downloaded on my phone.

That prologue recounts the Sunday morning when  a small town priest takes aim at his congregation and kills five men. From the start we know what has happen, but we can't imagine why.

The day is still. The heat, having eased during the night, is building again; the sky is cloudless and unforgiving, the sun punishing. Across the road, down by what's left of the river, the cicadas are generating a wall of noise, but there's silence surrounding the church. Parishioners begin to arrive for the eleven o'clock service, parking across the road in the shade of the trees. Once three or four cars have arrived, their occupants emerge into the brightness of the morning and cross the road, gathering outside St James to make small talk: stock prices, the scarcity of farm water, the punitive weather. The young priest, Byron Swift, is there, still dressed casually, chatting amiably with his elderly congregation. Nothing seems more amiss; everything appears normal. 
So many Australian books mention cicadas at the start! They must be great scene setters. Scrublands then is a powerful whydunnit, not a whodunnit. A year after the massacre a journalist from the Sydney Morning Herald travels to Riversend, a small fictional Riverina town made famous by their murderous priest. Martin Scarsden is there to write about the town one year on.

Martin is 40, single, damaged from his time as a foreign correspondent, and is at a low point of his career. He comes to this very small town, remarkably a town with no wifi and no phone reception, and a lot of secrets. Scrublands is a big, chunky book, 481 pages, and there's a lot of plot. Perhaps too much really. But the writing was so compelling that even when it all got a bit much, when it became even more implausible, I was still compulsively listening. I just couldn't stop. I would sneak in another chapter whenever I found a few spare minutes. Chris Hammer would use conversations and Martin mulling over the events to recap, and refresh the story for the reader/listener. This was a great technique and worked really well, especially for such a plot dense story. I greatly appreciated these breaks in the story moving forward, to give me enough time to process what had been going on and keep up as it all got even more intricate.

Chris Hammer was a journalist for over 30 years. Naturally, he wrote about his transition from journalist to author, a difference I'd not really thought about before. But there are clear and important differences between the two. His experience as a journalist really showed in Scrublands, the dynamics between the different types of media, each striving to make the story their own. And I just loved that he used actual names of real Australian newspapers and TV stations. Yes, it's a work of fiction, but it made it feel much more real, that he was writing for the Sydney Morning Herald, whilst his rival wrote for The Age. Instead of disguising things with fake media names. 

I've listened to Jane Harper's first two crime novels this year, and enjoyed the blokey, masculine voice of Steve Shanahan telling me those tales. Here, Dorje Swallow is even more laconic, his voice as parched as Riversend. He did a great job reading  although I think it pretty much never works when blokey men do women's voices. I always find that grating. 

I listened to a lot of Scrublands on a road trip to the coast in May and the mood and story has really stayed with me. I'll certainly be lining up early for Chris Hammer's next novel. Oooh, it's a sequel called Silver and is coming in October. 

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