Year 5 / Book 4: Scrublands

4) Scrublands by Chris Hammer

This Australian crime thriller has been on my list for a while, after it featured in quite a few different ‘recommended’ lists and review articles. It is centred round a journalist Martin Scarsden, who is returning to the scene of a shocking serial murder the year after it happened – he is at a personal and professional crossroads, and somewhat unsurprisingly finds himself not only digging into what happened the year before, but also at the centre of a whole load more action and developments.

This book starts wonderfully: it’s evocative, well-drawn, and we walk with Scarsden as he arrives in Riversend as Hammer brings it to life – and the characters who we meet feel real, and rich and rounded. As with the excellent novel by Jane Harper, The Dry, the Australian landscape is one of the leading characters, and the bushfire halfway through certainly brought its relevance home. [FWIW, I’d recommend the two novels by Harper I’ve read above this one]

So far, so good – but then it spirals a bit into a plot that feels increasingly unlikely and unnecessarily multi-faceted. From a starting point of a man in the wrong place with a different identity choosing a way out, we end up with something that involves drug dealing, bike gangs, the Australian FBI (ASIO), DNA tests, child abuse, rape, corruption and much more besides. It keeps unfolding, and becomes so convoluted that there is a section towards the end which is like an authorial version of ‘Basil Exposition’ in Austin Powers – a straightforward explanation for the reader of how all these elements now link up.

That’s disappointing, because I think there was a tighter, more focused (better edited?) thriller in here, that gets lost in an overly complicated and unbelievable plot. Hammer’s extremely talented – and I’d read something by him again; hopefully he won’t feel he has to pack every single idea into that one. I’d give the first half of this close to a 9 or a 10, but the second half brings it down…

Score: 6/10

BUY IT NOW: Scrublands: The Stunning, Word-of-Mouth Thriller of 2019

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