Another of my new books for the New Year – Scrublands was published in the UK this week
Scrublands by Chris Hammerpublished 2019
It’s a long and peculiar caravan that speeds across the baking plain from Riversend to Bellington, a convoy of anticipation and fear, ambition and despair, each vehicle propelled by a different purpose and transporting different emotions. Taking the lead are the police vehicles: Robbie Haus-Jones driving Herb Walker’s four-wheel drive; Morris Montifore and Goffing in a rental; a highway patroil car with a garish paint job transporting Mandalay Blonde and IvanLucic. Thereafter, the media: 3AW in a tarted-up truck with a colour scheme to rival the highway patrol; a bunch of white rental cars; a couple of personal vehicles; the television networks in their kitted-out station wagons and SUVs. The caravan moves at exactly 110 kph, the police observing the speed limit to the letter, the media not daring to go any faster or any slower, following in perfect formation, seatbelts fastened, cross purposes disguised by uniform velocity, all careering towards Bellington, the river and the next episode in this nation-gripping drama. Halfway across the plain the convoy sweeps past the lumbering satellite truck, not slowing, barely swerving, unimpeded by oncoming traffic, every driver indicating diligently as they pull out, indicating diligently as they pull back in.
commentary: There’s been a lot of buzz about this book – which was a huge bestseller in the country where it is set, Australia – and now that I’ve read it I’m not at all surprised: it’s a humdinger.
The setup is terrific. A reporter, Martin Scarsden, arrives in a tiny drought-struck town in the Australian outback. A year ago the local priest suddenly produced a gun before his Sunday service, and shot five men before being killed himself. Martin is going to do a piece to mark the one-year anniversary, see how the town is coping with the aftermath. He starts digging, and begins to find out the stories behind the story. The plot is one of the most labrynthine I have ever read: the amount of stuff going on in this one small town is extraordinary – but the author carries us along, and tells his story beautifully. A good way into the plot Martin considers what is going on:
He has saved someone in a fire; saved the life of an accident victim; stands accused of driving someone to suicide; been pilloried on national television; posted bail for someone accused of perverting the course of justice; and now has just saved yet another life.I have edited this to prevent spoilers, but the passage gives a good idea of the dramas within – and that isn’t the half of it.
One of the surprises for Martin in the town is that the priest, Byron Swift, isn’t reviled, and some people still think well and kindly of him. How can that be…? The answer is long and complicated. But the book is thought-provoking – how would you feel if someone you knew well and respect did something out of character, something bad in itself. Would you hate him, or still try to have an affection for him?
Hammer takes his time, it is not a short book, but I was happy with that. I chose the passage above to feature because it is exactly the kind of item that often makes me impatient in a thriller – who cares who is travelling in which car? But this image he created of the massive convoy was so visual, and so vivid, that it lived in my mind afterwards. One of many superb features. The dry, ravaged land is a major part of the story, and there is a terrifying bushfire among many other memorable scenes.
As well as everything else, Chris Hammer has produced wonderful character names: Mandalay Blonde, Harley Snouch and Codger Harris. And he is funny – I loved the description of the priest as a ‘backblocks Rasputin’.
It does contain a certain amount of violence, but much less than many comparable books.
So yes – I loved this book, I thought it was marvellous, and really lived up to all the advance publicity. It pulled me in, and I couldn’t put it down. I found it involving, and despite the melodramatic plot, it raised fascinating questions about morals and ethics. It is one of the best thrillers I have read in a long time.
Several of my blogging friends alerted me to this book with their reviews – in particular Bill Selnes at Mysteries and More, whose two posts on the book are well worth reading. He concentrates on different aspects of the book, and I found his thoughts illuminating. And Sarah Ward also enthused about the book over at Crimepieces.
Top image is a picture of scrublands from freeaussiestock.com.
Second image, same source.