Book Review

Scrublands by Chris Hammer


Scrublands is a novel that I heard a lot about when it was first published, and one I’ve been meaning to read for some time.  Recommended reading for fans of Jane Harper (and I’m most definitely a fan of Jane Harper), Scrublands proved to be worthy of this praise.

In an isolated country town ravaged by drought, a charismatic young priest opens fire on his congregation, killing five men before being shot dead himself.

A year later, journalist Martin Scarsden arrives in Riversend to write a feature on the anniversary of the tragedy. But the stories he hears from the locals don’t fit with the accepted version of events.

Just as Martin believes he is making headway, a shocking discovery rocks the town. The bodies of two backpackers – missing since the time of the massacre – are found in the scrublands. The media descends on Riversend and Martin is the one in the spotlight.

Wrestling with his own demons, Martin finds himself risking everything to uncover a truth that becomes 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.

Scrublands is a brilliantly plotted novel.  It’s incredibly complex, and it takes some time for the reader to fully understand the circumstances or to get any answers to the questions raised.  The reader enters Riversend with Martin Scarsden, one year on from the deaths of five men, shot in front of the church by the young and popular priest.  The reasons for the shooting were never discovered – indeed, the priest had seemed quite happy shortly before opening fire on his congregation.  Perhaps even more puzzling is that he is still remembered fondly by some of those in the community, despite his actions and the accusations made about him that became public knowledge during the subsequent investigation and the reporting of the events.  It’s an intriguing plot, and one that becomes ever more complicated as it progresses.

Martin Scarsden is an interesting character, although I’m undecided as to whether I liked him or not.  A journalist with a troubled past, his editor has sent him to Riversend to report on the anniversary of the shooting.  While there, he becomes intrigued by the events, and by the young and attractive book shop owner, Mandalay (Mandy) Blonde.  As he begins to report on both the town and the events from one year earlier, he becomes unwittingly entangled in the case.  I think that Scarsden is a good person in a bad profession, seeking out the news that those in Riversend may not want to see in the papers, but publishing it regardless.  He sees it as his duty to publish the truth, although his saving grace is that he does try to protect his sources where possible.

As a fictional reporter, Scarsden is, at times, a little flexible with the truth, relying on supposition and instinct where there are gaps in his knowledge.  He reports based on a variety of sources, some of whom prove to be more reliable than others, and gets a little carried away, publishing without always fully checking the veracity of the information he’s been given.  This causes some upset with the locals, some of whom vehemently disagree with his version of events.  He doesn’t deliberately misreport anything, but his desire to prove himself in the field and to land a big story puts him in the spotlight.  Karma being what it is, he soon gets a taste of his own medicine as additional media outlets descend upon Riversend to cover the discovery of two backpackers who have been missing for a year.

I loved the setting of Riversend, an out of the way town that is in decline.  It’s a town with lots of secrets, and everyone has something to hide.  As you’ll know if you’ve been following my blog for a while, I love settings like this.  I enjoy seeing the outsider – Scarsden, in this case – trying to get to the bottom of events when the locals are understandably standoffish and reluctant to answer his questions.  In Scarsden’s defence, he does help out around Riversend, helping with a bush fire raging across the drought-ravaged land, with great risk to his own life.  It’s a harsh and brutal landscape, and Hammer brings it to life successfully for the reader.

Scrublands is a taut, atmospheric read and a compelling narrative that you will want to keep reading – whatever your commitments – as you try to discover what’s going on.  It’s a novel that will keep you guessing until the end.  I can’t wait to read Silver, the follow up to Scrublands, that continues Martin Scarsden’s journey.  Both Scrublands and Silver are published by Wildfire and are available to purchase now.

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