Scrublands, Chris Hammer
Australian Rural Crime has arrived, there are novels showing up everywhere claiming this as their sub-genre, and SCRUBLANDS is the one that everyone is talking about. Film rights have been sold, everyone's reading it, most are raving about the book.
So having a contrary opinion is obviously going to go down like a lead balloon, but in this case, this reader has to beg to differ. Personally, after reading, SCRUBLANDS, it's staying with me as an airport thriller style novel shoe-horned into a rural setting.
A rural setting that has some questionable elements to it. I'm not at all sure where the idea that a CFA crew would suddenly scoop up a complete outsider, chuck him in some borrowed gear and let him head into a firestorm to help the local cop with a rescue comes from - I know the shitstorm that would arise after it though. I'm also not that sure where the idea that twelve months after the local priest shot dead five men it would take an incoming journalist to ask "what was that all about". I'm also not convinced that police would be blabbing their heads off about the whys and wherefores of an investigation and what actually happened on the day to aforementioned journalist when there was an ongoing investigation, but there you go. And I'm absolutely 100% over the idea that every eligible women in a small town would sleep with anybody and anything that wanders by ... because of well boredom or lack of self-respect caused by other blokes, or whatever the hell was being suggested here. Maybe I'm just picky but something about SCRUBLANDS got up my nose. The procedural aspects were off, the rural setting seems to consist of a bloke wandering around bitching about how hot it was in the sun (no shit sherlock) and the observations of the impact of drought were ... well odd. As for the ending - with all it's happy every after, good bloke, oh look it's raining...
So this is a novel, set in the Riverina, where in 45 minutes you go from "paradise" on the banks of running river in a drought, to "hell" in the form of a mostly abandoned small town in which an unthinkable multiple murder took place. Add to the mix a journalist with a hefty dose of PTSD, a beautiful young woman who is seemingly stuck in the dying town running a second hand bookshop and cafe, the widow of one of the murdered men running the local store, a derro (who lives on one of the major farms / with water available from a spring... what oh for goodness sake, the farm is just out of town, the family are the local "family" - and everyone knows that), and then there's a services club hanging on by it's fingernails and a closed down pub. To be clear, the pub was closed down by an incomer, the priest who shot everyone was an incomer, the weird couple living out in the Scrublands surrounding the town are incomers, the bikies who keep roaring through town on their bikes are incomers, and the only person asking the hard questions is an incomer journalist.
To be really clear about this I am really pleased that there is such a beast as rural crime doing the rounds in Australia these days, but I think we have to be careful to understand the difference between books about rural issues and books set in rural areas. SCRUBLANDS is very much a book set in a rural location, which to be frank, has some criminal activity that could have occurred anywhere. For this reader there's no real sense of a rural town, there's no real sense of rural issues, and there's no real sense of the damage, trauma and deprivation of drought. Worse still there's a lot of simplistic lip service, some insulting generalisations and a good bloke, happy ever after ending that was stroke inducingly annoying.
To be fair, perhaps it works as a bit of a yarn, and if happy ever after is what you're looking for, it'll work and be a very satisfying read. If you're looking for insight in what it's truly like in another part of the world (which lets face it rural Australia is for most Australian's let alone those from other locales), then this isn't that book.
In an isolated country town brought to its knees by endless drought, a charismatic and dedicated young priest calmly opens fire on his congregation, killing five parishioners before being shot dead himself.
A year later, troubled journalist Martin Scarsden arrives in Riversend to write a feature on the anniversary of the tragedy. But the stories he hears from the locals about the priest and incidents leading up to the shooting don't fit with the accepted version of events his own newspaper reported in an award-winning investigation. Martin can't ignore his doubts, nor the urgings of some locals to unearth the real reason behind the priest's deadly rampage.
Just as Martin believes he is making headway, a shocking new development rocks the town, which becomes the biggest story in Australia. The media descends on Riversend and Martin is now the one in the spotlight. His reasons for investigating the shooting have suddenly become very personal.
Wrestling with his own demons, Martin finds himself risking everything to discover a truth that becomes darker and 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.
A compulsive thriller that will haunt you long after you have turned the final page.