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Chris Hammer is primarily known as an Australian journalist with well over three decades of experience covering politics and international affairs. He has written two well-received nonfiction works concerning the geography and culture of areas of Australia, which is why SCRUBLANDS, his latest book, is a bit of a surprise. Unlike his prior efforts, this is a work of fiction, and its setting is a small village in its late twilight rather than an entire geographical region. Hammer’s focus, though, remains razor-sharp in this slowly boiling tale of the secrets and vice beneath the surface of quiet habitats.

The third-person present tense narrative follows Martin Scarsden, a somewhat troubled reporter on assignment in a one-street town called Riversend. The name is ironic, given the near-drought conditions that have existed in the area during recent memory and contributed in part to its decline. It is the “in part” qualifier that brings Martin to Riversend on the one-year anniversary of the town’s greatest tragedy.

"[T]he intricate plotting, turns of phrase and sharply drawn characters make Hammer’s debut work of fiction worth reading."

A priest assigned to the church there shot and killed five men without warning before Sunday morning services; he was subsequently gunned down by the local constable. Martin’s task is simple enough. He is to report on how the remaining residents are dealing with the aftermath of these senseless killings, which touched literally everyone there and still resonate along the town’s main street, particularly since the reason for the priest’s actions died with him.

Still somewhat traumatized from his experiences as a war correspondent in Afghanistan, Martin quickly finds himself tempted to color outside the lines of his assignment. He slowly and tentatively --- at least at first --- begins to probe what may have caused the priest to suddenly commit mayhem in full view of his arriving congregation. Discovering the truth is not easy. It seems as if everyone in the town is living a lie, some of which have nothing to do with the murders but that nonetheless hinder Martin’s efforts to uncover the truth. When the bodies of a pair of hitchhikers who had gone missing around the time of the dramatic mass murder are also uncovered, it appears that their deaths may have been connected to the Sunday morning killings.

Things change quickly, however, and the story that Martin is reporting is a fluid one. So what seemed to be true on one day is revealed to be false the next. Martin soon finds that he himself is part of the story, and not in a good way, and the mysteries that surround the town appear to multiply exponentially by the hour. Each is gradually solved, until the main mystery --- the priest’s motive for the murders --- is all that remains. The novel is part Matryoshka and part origami that unfolds slowly over the course of the story, the occasional quirky elements of which sometimes hide a sharp and dangerous edge, even as it becomes a tale of redemption tinged with sadness.

Hammer’s prose is lyrical and deeply descriptive. One can almost feel the heat of the Australian scrubland rising from the book’s binding. My only quibble with the multilayered mystery is that it occasionally felt as if Hammer was taking just a bit too long to arrive at his ultimate destination. Nonetheless, the intricate plotting, turns of phrase and sharply drawn characters make Hammer’s debut work of fiction worth reading.

Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 11, 2019

by Chris Hammer

  • Publication Date: January 14, 2020
  • Genres: Fiction, Mystery, Suspense, Thriller
  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Atria Books
  • ISBN-10: 1501196758
  • ISBN-13: 9781501196751