Book Review: Scrublands – Chris Hammer

About The Book

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. 

My Review

Wowee. The quality of crime fiction coming out of Australia and New Zealand is quite incredible and we are being well and truly spoilt. There’s Jane Harper’s The Dry and Force of Nature (with The Lost Man on the way next month), Vanda Symon’s Overkill (the next book in the series, The Ringmaster is out in April) and now we have Chris Hammer whose book Scrublands was one of my first reads of 2019 and it is quite frankly exceptional.

Journalist Martin Scarsden is sent by his editor to the remote town of Riversend to write a piece on how the town is coping as the anniversary of a significant and brutal crime approaches. Nearly a year earlier the priest opened fire outside of church killing five parishiners before being killed by local police officer Robbie Haus-Jones. Riversend is in the midst of a drought, the river is dry, the ground is scorched and cracked and the scrubland which surrounds the town makes it an unforgiving place to live. Riversend is a pot just waiting to boil over and Martin will be there when it does.

Martin is in his early 40s and has PTSD from a terrible event that took place whilst he was working in Gaza. His editor feels that a feature on Riversend will be a gentle way of easing his way back into journalism. The only thing is nobody has told Riversend that and his investigations uncovers information that indicates there may be more to the shooting than first believed. He finds himself knee deep in secrets and lies in this claustrophobic town and what follows is a masterclass in storyelling.

This book almost felt like a western at times, especially in the descriptions of the town itself which is set amongst parched land containing the bare necessities of a pub, shop, police station, church, hotel. Everybody knows one another and they’re not particularly trusting of Martin after the press reporting of the shooting a year earlier. He finds himself trying to ingratiate himself to uncover what actually happened a year earlier but this isn’t exactly simple when so many people want to keep things hidden.

The priest, Byron Swift was held in high regard and much to Martin’s surprise still is, despite him murdering 5 people. What hold did Byron have over the town? Why do people still talk fondly of him? Martin’s attempts to dig are hampered by a bushfire and then something happens which brings the press back to Riversend and he finds that not only is the town back in the public eye but he too is thrust into the spotlight.

This is a brilliantly written book with incredible plotting and pacing and is a real page turner. I tore through it devouring it in a day or two, reading it whenever I could. I loved Martin (and have to admit to developing a bit of a crush on him) but more than that I loved the way the plot was built with small and large reveals feeling true to the book and not just a twist for the sake of it. It is a character led mystery with stacks of intrigue and a compelling narrative and is a real gem of a book. I can’t wait to read more by Chris Hammer.

Where You Can Buy It

My thanks to NetGalley and the publisher Headline for an advanced copy of the book in return for an honest review. Scrublands is out now in ebook and out today in hardcover.

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