In an isolated country town brought to its knees by endless drought, a charismatic and dedicated young priest calmly opens fire on his congregation, killing five parishioners before being shot dead himself. A year later, troubled journalist Martin Scarsden arrives in Riversend to write a feature on the anniversary of the tragedy. But the stories he hears from the locals about the priest and incidents leading up to the shooting don’t fit with the accepted version of events his own newspaper reported in an award-winning investigation. Martin can’t ignore his doubts, nor the urgings of some locals to unearth the real reason behind the priest’s deadly rampage. Just as Martin believes he is making headway, a shocking new development rocks the town, which becomes the biggest story in Australia. The media descends on Riversend and Martin is now the one in the spotlight. His reasons for investigating the shooting have suddenly become very personal. Wrestling with his own demons, Martin finds himself risking everything to discover a truth that becomes darker and more complex with every twist. But there are powerful forces determined to stop him, and he has no idea how far they will go to make sure the town’s secrets stay buried. A compulsive thriller that will haunt you long after you have turned the final page.
Scrublands opens with a tense scene that pulls you straight into the mystery at the heart of the novel. We are shown how the young dedicated priest of the drought-plagued town of Riversend methodically shoots five of his parishioners before turning the gun on himself, but we aren’t told why he would do that.
One year after the tragedy troubled journalist Martin Scarsdale arrives in Riversend to write a feature on how the town is coping now. It seems as though the reasoning behind the priest’s crime had already been revealed by one of Marin’s colleagues but as he gets to know the town and its inhabitants Martin discovers that there is far more to this story than he ever could have imagined.
The further Martin digs into this story, the more entangled he becomes with the weird and wonderful townsfolk of Riversend, including a romance. He eventually breaks the cardinal rule of journalism and becomes the story himself and this puts his job, his budding relationship, and even his life in danger but he is in so deep by then that he feels as though he has no choice but to see things through to the bitter end.
I loved the drought-stricken bush setting of this book and you can almost feel the heat radiating off the book while you hold it. The author has accurately conveyed the dry heavy heat of the Australian bush during droughts, as well as all the weird ways that it can affect the people who live there. I read this book over the cold winter months of lockdown in Melbourne and the way that the heat was described had me dreaming of long road trips I’ve been on in the past through towns just like Riversend.
I also found the why-dunnit mysteries and plot twists fascinating, but like other reviewers, felt that it was perhaps a little bit too convoluted at times and this meant that there was a lot of catching up and explaining to do towards the end.
Scrublands is a must-read for crime fiction fans and one of the stand out additions to the bush noir subgenre of books set in drought-stricken Australian country towns. Hammer has skilfully connected the scorching heat of the Australian bush with dark and desperate characters and I will definitely be adding his latest books to my never-ending TBR pile.
Published: Published July 25th 2018 by Allen & Unwin
Source: Own copy
Read: Paperback, September 2020
Rating: 4 stars
About the author
Chris Hammer is a leading Australian crime fiction novelist, author of international bestsellers Scrublands and Silver.
His new book, Trust, will be published in Australia and New Zealand in October 2020 and internationally from early 2021.
Scrublands was an instant bestseller upon publication in 2018, topping the Australian fiction charts.
In Australia, it was shortlisted for the 2019 ABIA, Indies and NSW Premier’s awards ; in the UK it was named the Sunday Times Crime Novel of the Year 2019 and won the prestigious UK Crime Writers’ Association John Creasey New Blood Dagger Award; in the US it is shortlisted for both the Barry and the Strand Magazine awards for debut crime fiction.
Silver, also featuring journalist Martin Scarsden and his partner Mandalay Blonde, was shortlisted for the ABIA and Booksellers Choice Awards and longlisted for the UK CWA Gold Dagger.
Before turning to fiction, Chris was a journalist for more than thirty years. He reported from more than 30 countries on six continents for SBS TV. In Canberra, roles included chief political correspondent for The Bulletin, senior writer for The Age and Online Political Editor for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.
Chris has written two non-fiction books The River (2010) and The Coast (2012), published by Melbourne University Press.
He has a bachelor’s degree in Journalism from Charles Sturt University and a master’s degree in International Relations from the Australian National University. He lives in Canberra, Australia.