Fresh Blood

Name: Chris Hammer

Title of Book: Scrublands

'A superb debut that is incredibly assured and will have many talking about it in 2019.'

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.

ĎScrublandsí is an immense, complex novel. This is not a book that can be skimmed, but every word of Hammerís needs to be savoured like a fine wine. With breath-taking immediacy, Hammer transported me to Riversend, a drought ridden town in the outback, dying due to its remoteness as well as the stigma of the mass shooting by their priest nearly a year ago. With an incredible literary palette, Hammer paints a vivid, shimmering portrait of Riversend, a town in desolation and isolation, making it one of the main characters in Hammerís ambitious and epic novel.

Many of the characters inhabiting this town have colourful names: Mandalay Blonde, Codger Harries and Harley Snouch, quite Dickensian, but as the author himself points out in his Q&A, it really helped keeping track as to who had what to hide without confusion. And boy, are there a plethora of secrets in this little watering hole, which scarcely has any water!

Hammer channels all his history as a journalist in to Martin Scarsden to bring authenticity to this damaged man who has lost his way in his personal life, as well as his professional one. It is all the more telling that he finds his way back on his path in a crumbling town such as Riversend. In a way, he is a bit like a phoenix rising from the ashes of Riversend. Maybe not totally re-born, but certainly with a new purpose.

Hammer manages to keep hold of all his strands and brings it all to a satisfying conclusion. It really shows that when people live cheek by jowl with one another in a small town like Riversend, you wonder if you ever really know them. Such is the case here, with many putting up a faÁade of some description. I really loved this book and even from the comfort of my own sofa, I could feel that unrelenting sun burning my toes! A superb debut that is incredibly assured and will have many talking about it in 2019!

Reviewed by: C.S.

CrimeSquad Rating

Fresh Blood Questionnaire

1) You have been a journalist for over twenty-five years and your main character, Martin Scarsden is a journalist. Did you decide to stick to what you know when looking for a main protagonist in your novel?
There are plenty of journalists who turn their hand to crime writing, but many donít use journalists for their protagonists. Iíve always found that curious. Instead, they use police officers, private investigators even psychologists.

But a journalist makes a good investigator. They have a motivation for finding out the truth, hopefully some institutional support, and a licence to stick their nose in where itís not wanted. Of course, they have none of the powers of arrest, interrogation, search etc that police have, so that makes it a bit trickier to plot. On the other hand, there is the opportunity for friction and interplay between a journalistic hero and the police.
2) Riversend is a dying town in the middle of nowhere attacked by the blistering heat day after day. Are there towns like this in Australia and how do they survive? Are they ripe for this sort of novel?
There are indeed towns like Riversend, particularly at the moment, as there is currently a severe drought. Temperature in much of inland Australia has been in the high forties during the past week. Ten years ago, during the most severe drought on record, I travelled to such places while researching a non-fiction book and found towns where the rivers had run bone dry.

But itís not all doom and gloom. There is huge demand for food and fibre amongst Asiaís emerging middle classes, so farmers in Australia can make a very good living Ė provided it rains!!
3) You have some great characters in ĎScrublandsí with Dickensian names such as Harley Snouch, Codger Harris and Mandalay Blonde. Is character as important to you when writing as plot?
First, the names. When I was writing 'Scrublands', I was working away part-time, more or less as a hobby, hoping it would be published but not sure it would be. So when it came to the names, I was having a bit of fun. After the book was published and found its way onto the best seller lists in Australia, I was a bit concerned that I had over-egged the names. But then a reader told me she loved the names because she found the plot was quite complex (which is true) and the distinctive names were a great help in keeping track of who is who. So there you go.

As to character, it is important. This was one of the things that drew me to crime writing in the first place. Yes, a good plot is essential, but there is room for so much more, including nuanced and complex characters. I find a crime book is all the more entertaining and thought provoking when the perpetrator isnít all bad and when the victim(s) (and the protagonist) arenít all good.
4) ĎScrublandsí has many strands to it as well as being a substantial read. Did your journalistic training come in to play when writing/plotting your book?
To an extent. I think my experience in scripting long-form television reports has been useful. Typically, you have several unconnected sequences and need to lead the viewer seamlessly through them, always constrained by what footage you have to work with.

But plotting the story remains tricky. The plot to Scrublands evolved over time, with me throwing away entire story lines (and tens of thousands of words) and introducing new ones.

On a more prosaic note, I think journalism helps with the discipline of writing. That is, writing every say, whether you feel like it or not, instead of waiting for inspiration. Just try telling a newspaper or television editor that you may not file today as youíre not feeling inspired!
5) What is next for Chris Hammer? Will your next book feature Martin Scarsden?
'Scrublands' has only just been published in the UK and the US, but it came out last July in Australia. So Iím well into the follow up. It will be a stand-alone mystery, somewhat similar to Scrublands in that the plot has several strands. And yes, it will again feature Martin Scarsden.
6) Are you a fan of crime fiction? If so, which three crime novels would you like with you if stranded on a desert island?
I do like crime fiction, although Iím not a complete tragic (I do read other books as well). My three crime books for a desert island would be Truth by Peter Temple, a brilliant Australian crime book, a Raymond Chandler or a Dashiell Hammett and thirdly The Great Gatsby.