Dirt Town, Hayley Scrivenor

Reviewed By
Karen Chisholm

An outstanding debut novel back in 2022 (good grief has it really taken this long to post this ...), it's very very hard to look past an Australian rural noir novel called DIRT TOWN. Sitting as I am at the moment in the middle of an Australian rural summer that's mostly putting up dust clouds and fire smoke everywhere you look.

Set in the sweltering (can identify) small Australian town of Durton, this place is referred to mostly as Dirt Town by the locals (and why wouldn't they). There's a particularly apt quote:

Dirt town. Dirt and hurt – that’s what others would remember about our town.

that kind of sums it up. 

It's in Durton that twelve-year-old Esther Bianchi has gone missing. Esther was Ronnie's best friend, and they had left school together on a sweltering afternoon - only Esther didn't make it home and Ronnie did. As you'd imagine in a small town, a disappearance like this hits hard. Nobody can quite believe it has happened, nobody is quite sure who they can trust anymore, no-one is providing the slightest hints of what went on. Detective Sergeant Sarah Michaels might arrive with bucket loads of experience in dealing with the dregs of society, but she's never encountered anything like the effect that the eventual discovery of Esther's body has on a town and community this small, this insular, this connected.

What the reader is delivered in DIRT TOWN is a vivid sense of place and the people within it. The reader is given a very close, ringside seat to the collapse of this small community via multiple perspectives, and therefore attitudes. As the world around them seems to crumble, Esther's friends Ronnie and Lewis, Esther's mother Constance, and DS Michaels see, feel, and experience such a vivid, visceral range of emotions and reactions, whilst seeking answers to all sorts of questions. You can feel their reactions, confusion, pain, fright, and you see very clearly how suspicions mount and gossip takes hold. The author does a particularly good job at exposing the stresses and unsettling of these people, as they try to process the idea that there's a killer in their midst, but in an interesting twist, there's a few other things that people would rather keep under raps. These multiple stresses create a real opportunity for the author to explore the humanity of the situation, whilst also delivering a solid procedural novel, with a slow burn that's enthralling, deeply involving, and quite chilling. 

As is often the case now with rural noir novels set in remote Australia, it's hot, it's dry, it's remote and it's very insular. These factors often can be delivered in a somewhat formulaic manner, but not in DIRT TOWN. Everything combines to create an intense, confronting, involving and surprisingly emotional novel.

DIRT TOWN was awarded an ABIA for General Fiction Book of the Year, the ILP John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger, and a Lambda Literary Award. Her next work, entitled GIRL FALLING is due out in the second half of 2024.

Year of Publication

My best friend wore her name, Esther, like a queen wearing her crown at a jaunty angle. We were twelve years old when she went missing.

On a sweltering Friday afternoon in Durton, best friends Ronnie and Esther leave school together. Esther never makes it home.

Ronnie's going to find her, she has a plan. Lewis will help. Their friend can't be gone, Ronnie won't believe it.

Detective Sergeant Sarah Michaels can believe it, she has seen what people are capable of. She knows more than anyone how, in a moment of weakness, a person can be driven to do something they never thought possible.

Lewis can believe it too. But he can't reveal what he saw that afternoon at the creek without exposing his own secret.

Five days later, Esther's buried body is discovered.

What do we owe the girl who isn't there?

Review Dirt Town, Hayley Scrivenor
Karen Chisholm
Friday, March 8, 2024
Blog Updates - Week Ending 8th March
Karen Chisholm
Monday, January 15, 2024

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