Category Archives: Australia

Scrublands by Chris Hammer

Wildfire | 2019 (8 January; ebook was published 25 July, 2018) | 496p | Review copy | Buy the book

Scrublands by Chris HammerExactly 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.

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Force of Nature by Jane Harper

Little, Brown | 2018 (8 February) | 400p | Review copy | Buy the book

When five women head into the rugged and difficult terrain of the Giralang Ranges in the Australian Outback on a company team building exercise, only four will return. They’d taken a wrong turn and had to sleep far from their intended camp. In the morning Alice Russell was gone. The other women, Alice’s boss and colleagues, hoped that she’d made it out of the bush before them but they were wrong. Federal agent and police office Aaron Falk quickly arrives from Melbourne with his partner Carmen Cooper. He has a deep interest in this case. The women, as well as a separate team of five men, are from BaileyTenants, a company that Falk is investigating for money laundering, and Alice Russell was his whistleblower.

The Dry, the first Aaron Falk novel, was a crime fiction highlight of last year and it’s a pleasure to be given the chance to spend more time with this enigmatic and likeable figure. A major element in the appeal of this growing series is its locations. Jane Harper captures perfectly the beauty and danger of Australia’s wild places. In The Dry it was the desert; now we’re taken deep into a hostile yet stunning environment of forests, rivers and waterfalls, rocks and scrub. Isolated and almost impenetrable but, according to the company that runs these team building courses, safe. Apparently.

Force of Nature moves back and forth through this period of a few days in which everything has become chaos. We follow Falk and Carmen on their investigation as they try to get to know this remote place and its inhabitants while other chapters return to those three eventful, stormy and hungry days in the Giralang Ranges when the women lost their way. It’s an enjoyable mix of survival out in the wilds with the order of a police investigation. At times civilisation, and the world of finance crimes and investigations, seems a long way away.

There is something a little unlikeable about each of the five women who are so reluctantly thrown together for the course. Two of them are twin sisters and even they can’t get along. This adds tension and some disharmony to the novel. I welcomed the scenes with Falk and Carmen – for the relief they brought from the madness.

My favourite part of Force of Nature is its atmosphere. Jane Harper skilfully creates a sinister mood of menace and nature gone wild that grows throughout the novel. You can really empathise with the relief that characters feel when they get in their cars to drive the long drive to Melbourne.

While I found Force of Nature a little less original and impactful than its superb predecessor The Dry, it nevertheless takes us on a powerful and moody journey into that side of human nature that is as dangerous and untamed as the Girlang Ranges.

Other review
The Dry

The Dry by Jane Harper

Little, Brown | 2016 | 358p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Dry by Jane HarperIt’s been twenty years since teenager Aaron Faulk and his father were driven out of the small rural town of Kiewarra, Australia. Faulk is now a Federal Police Investigator of financial crime based in Melbourne. Now and then he meets up with his old mate Luke whenever Luke is visiting the city from Kiewarra but otherwise Faulk’s ties with his old hometown are cut. Until now. A tragedy calls Faulk back. Luke is dead. He killed himself but not before he shot dead in their home his wife Karen and their small son Billy. A note from Luke’s father insists Faulk must return for the funerals, hinting that he knows something about that other tragedy twenty years before. Luke’s father knows that all those years ago Luke and Faulk lied.

Apprehensive about what he might find, Faulk returns to a community devastated by the three deaths and stricken by a terrible drought. The town’s policeman, a newcomer, is doing his best to find out what drove Luke to do what he did but when Faulk offers his help it is gratefully accepted. But the more Faulk digs, the more the past returns to haunt him. And Faulk’s presence is a reminder to the town of their earlier loss. Tension, grief and anger do their worst, and soon Faulk feels a million miles away from his life in Melbourne and he realises that this town has never left him. It’s time for Kiewarra’s secrets to emerge from the shadows.

The Dry isn’t just a crime novel, it’s a vividly painted portrait of a community brought to the edge of despair and ruin by the brutality of man and the devastation of nature. Kiewarra is a farming community facing the reality of no rain, dried up rivers and poverty. In a sense, people can understand why their fellow farmer Luke should have been brought so low but then they remember his wife and innocent child. People want answers but not everyone wants them from Aaron Faulk. Jane Harper’s descriptions of Kiewarra are superb and it infuses the whole novel with a mood and atmosphere that makes The Dry stand out as one of the best crime novels we’ll see this winter. There’s something about reading a fine novel set in such a dry and hot location while huddled under blankets during the winter cold.

The story is cleverly told. Most of the narrative follows Faulk during his visit to Kiewarra when he tries to help the police investigation while at the same time having to endure the stares and insults of the townspeople. But interspersed throughout are flashbacks, covering both the recent crime and the events of twenty years before. This works brilliantly and takes us into the past, bringing it into the present, in such an effective fashion.

Almost everyone in The Dry is given a past and a story. They are all so fascinating to learn and it brings this small place to life. But I also really enjoyed the crime aspect of the novel. It is such a good mystery. There is a real sadness and hopelessness to some aspects of the story and to some of the characters, as well as a foreboding and threat, but this is offset by the beauty of the language, the vastness of the sky and the stark and vivid isolation of the parched Kiewarra. This is a novel to become engrossed in. I didn’t want to put it down at all and was sorry when it came to its excellent conclusion and I had to.