When I first saw Scrublands appear on bookshelves, I thought that perhaps it was the usual story of another publisher jumping on the bandwagon of Jane Harper’s very successful outback crime thrillers. But towards the end of 2019, as various readers and writers compiled their “best of” lists, Scrublands kept appearing.
I’m so glad I jumped in. Chris Hammer previously worked as a newspaperman, and it’s a newspaper journalist that we follow in this elaborate and terrific thriller, set in a small remote town that’s borne the brunt of recent tragic events.
Martin Scarsden has been sent by his paper to write a piece on the anniversary of a horrific and seemingly motiveless killing involving the local priest shooting dead a number of locals from the steps of his church. Only the quick action of the local police officer, who shot the priest dead himself, seemed to prevent further deaths.
The impact on the tiny community has been immense, and Scarsden, himself on the comeback trail after an incident that left him scarred when he was on assignment in the Middle East. This is novel about media, and the news media in general. And it doesn’t paint the best picture of them. Certainly, our protagonist is flawed, constantly choosing the most journalistically opportune thing to do, rather than what might be best for the people involved. That becomes particularly complicated when he gets personally involved with characters who may or may not be involved in the broader story.
But it’s probably an honest picture of those journalistic methods – hacks chasing the story at just about any cost!
The story itself bobs and weaves, going in directions that you didn’t necessarily expect it to go, but never really making you think that anything that happens is that unlikely.
At one point, there’s a vivid description of a bush fire – something that we’ve come to learn all too much about in recent weeks. It’s successfully contained here, perhaps the least realistic part of the entire novel!
This truly is a superior piece of writing, and thoroughly recommended.