Wildfire | 2019 (8 January; ebook was published 25 July, 2018) | 496p | Review copy | Buy the book
Exactly a year ago, the small rural community of Riversend, a remote town surrounded by scrubland, was devastated by the shocking actions of its priest, Byron Swift. It was a Sunday just like any other with Swift about to carry out the church service at St James’s. But, having chatted with members of the congregation, Swift walked inside the church and came out a few minutes later armed. He shot dead five men before he too was killed by the town’s young constable, Robbie. Rumours followed, hinting that the priest was paedophile, but, when journalist Martin Scarsen arrives in Riversend to write a feature on how the town is doing a year on, he discovers that the priest was a popular, respected man, with at least two women in love with him. Swift’s actions seem inexplicable but Martin, who has his own healing to do, is determined to discover the truth. And for that to happen, he will immerse himself in Riversend and the lives of its people, an experience that will change his life. What he uncovers is extraordinary.
Riversend is a dying town. It is wracked by trauma, heat and drought. The river has dried up, shops have closed down, some people, especially those who scrape a subsistence in the scrublands themselves, are barely surviving. The threat of fire is constant and terrifying. And yet people don’t leave. They are tied to the town and Martin learns why. Nothing binds a community together quite as much as its secrets.
Scrublands is a truly immersive read. Just as Martin becomes almost obsessed by the curious town of Riversend, so we too become caught up in its story. It’s enthralling! Part of the reason is the character of Riversend itself. There’s not much to it but what there is we get to know very well indeed – its Oasis bookshop and coffee bar, the country club (the only place to get a cold beer), the boarded up wine saloon, the motel, the general store, the abandoned pub and the church, a place where people go to remember what happened a year before. And then there’s the surrounding scrubland with its isolated farms and homes. It’s all under attack from heat and drought. Water is a currency. Chris Hammer makes us feel the heat, dust and thirst, as Martin explores the town thoroughly.
And then there’s the people, so many with pleasing names such as Mandalay Blonde, Harley Snouch, and the unforgettable Codger Harris. They are all fully developed by Chris Hammer, each with his or her own distinct personality and story to tell. Martin couldn’t be better placed to get the scoop of his career.
It’s a complex plot and it becomes increasingly so as the book progresses and more and more press, police and special agents descend on the town. Everyone is edgy and it’s not surprising. This town runs on secrets. There are several threads running through the book. It’s Martin’s job, when he’s not falling hard for some of the town’s people, to knit them together and I couldn’t work out how on earth he would do it until the very end.
There is something wonderful atmospheric, oppressive and claustrophobic about Scrublands, just as there is about the town of Riversend. We’re led off in so many directions, all under that fiery relentless sun. This is impressive storytelling and already one of the crime thrillers to beat in 2019.