By Chris Hammer
Journalist Martin Scarsden drives into sun-baked Riversend to write a news story about the town’s recovery — or lack thereof — from a mass shooting a year earlier.
The shooter was Father Byron Swift, the priest at St. James Anglican Church.
Dressed in his Sunday robes, crucifix glinting, Swift stepped out on to the porch of the church with a high-powered rifle and fired five shots at five men with deadly accuracy.
The only shot he misses is the one he seemed to be aiming at Constable Robbie Haus-Jones. Instinctively, Constable Haus-Jones fires at Swift, killing him and ending the shooting spree.
It’s an opening guaranteed to hook you for the rest of the book. There is no question that Swift was the murderer. The question is why? That question becomes more and more baffling to Scarsden as he talks to residents of Riversend.
Swift is described as charismatic, empathetic and likable. Mandalay Blonde, owner of the local cafe and book store, tells Scarsden that he rescued her from a dark period of her life. Haus-Jones describes how Swift started a youth group to keep teens engaged, entertained and out of trouble in town that had nothing to offer them.
A priest may be a saint, but a murderer can’t be. And that is both the suspense and the flaw of this book.
Hammer has created a likeable villain. But he has to assassinate Swift’s character to explain the haunting “why?” The more you learn about Swift, the less compelling the question becomes.
To fill out the novel, Hammer introduces other mysteries: dead backpacking tourists; a sociopathic, murderous teen; a con man trying to swindle his own relatives out of land; motorcycle gangs; and drug dealers.
Hammer does do a brilliant job of painting a small town dwindling into a ghost town because of a drought that has dried up all the local business. The comparisons between this book and Jane Harper’s novels, The Dry and The Lost Man, are inevitable.
All three take place in small, drought-stricken Australian towns that are barely surviving. All three involve characters who appear in public to be much finer people than they are.
But while Harper’s books are tightly plotted, character-driven stories, Hammer’s book shows his admitted “writing-by-seat-of-his-pants” style.
About the Author: Chris Hammer
Three weeks after starting a job as a political advisor to Australian Labor Parliament member Stephen Jones, Chris Hammer got a deal to publish his first novel SCRUBLANDS. He resigned the following Monday and shortly thereafter, the international and television rights to the book were sold.