Scrublands by Chris Hammer

‘He looks down to where the river should be and sees instead a mosaic of cracked clay, baked and going to dust.’

Riversend is an isolated country town, crippled by drought. One Sunday, a young and well-liked priest, shoots dead five parishioners outside St James Church before being shot dead himself. There’s speculation, but no-one knows why.

Twelve months later, Martin Scarsden, a journalist dealing with some demons of his own, travels to Riversend. He’s been sent to write a feature article for the anniversary of the tragedy. He finds the town mostly deserted: businesses have closed, people have left. But as he moves around the town and speaks with those who remain, what he hears doesn’t fit with the accepted version of events reported. What really happened? Martin has his own doubts, and some of the locals also question what happened.

‘Okay, Mandy. Byron Swift shot five people dead. You tell me: why did he do it?’

‘I don’t know. But if you found out, that would be a hell of a story, wouldn’t it?’

Martin talks to several people, and just when he thinks he is starting to make some sense of events, Riversend is rocked by another development. The bodies of two German backpackers are found and once again, the spotlight is on Riversend. Australia’s media descends on the town and Martin himself is a focus of their attention. Who killed the backpackers? Are the murders connected?

‘Every time I think we’re getting somewhere, it slips through our fingers. You get that feeling?’

The more Martin digs for the truth, the more complex and twisted that truth seems to become. There are other elements to the story as well, and there are those who will stop at nothing to try to keep the truth hidden. The shooting outside St James is only one of several crimes in and around Riversend.

This novel held my attention from beginning to end. Just when I thought I had a possible explanation, another twist would emerge. There are a few tragedies contained within the pages of this novel. Taken in isolation, I found some elements are less believable than others. But novels are (like life itself) the sum of many disparate parts, and the parts of this novel make for a very satisfying (albeit haunting) whole.

Highly recommended.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith