We’ve heard of “whodunnits”, but the most recent book I read is more like a “whydunnit”? Or so it would seem a couple of chapters in, but by the time we finish we’re not quite sure if it was a “whodunnit” mystery, a “why” one, a romance or a rural slice-of-life drama. Murder! Intrigue! Romance! Rural sociology! In the end, Scrublands turns out to be all of the above, making it quite a page-turner.
The 2019 novel was the fiction debut by Aussie journalist Chris Hammer, who seems to have learned how to tell a story well in his line of work. Like “lead with the hook.” He does that in Scrublands, where the most “action” happens in the prologue before chapter one begins. A small town priest gets ready for his Sunday mass and then, seemingly out of the blue, turns into a mass murderer, shooting people in front of his church for no apparent reason.
A year passes and a city newspaper sends middle-aged reporter Martin to look around the town and see how it’s coping. When he gets to Riverside, a small town that served as a stop on the highway and not a whole lot else, he finds it’s business as usual… as usual as business is going to be in a town of fewer than 1000 with few viable businesses surrounded by drought-stricken farms. But as he begins talking to the locals, he finds the more interesting story is trying to piece together the “why?”. Why did the relatively popular young priest turn murderous, why did some of his townsfolk get shot while others were spared? And of course, the “whats”. What did his rampage have to do with a couple of other murders nearby, if anything? What were members of a violent bike gang doing spending so much time riding through town? And most of all, what were townsfolk trying to cover up?
The answers to that fill the 300+ page book as Martin deals with the police, Australian feds cuiously interested in the goings-on and a number of local oddballs of questionable character. And, maybe, just maybe falls in love along the way.
It is a complex read at times, in that there are a lot of story arcs intersecting. Most of them eventually tie together satisfactorily and the whole story moves along at a brisk, entertaining pace.
An enjoyable book that resonates very well oceans away from ‘Down Under’… and seems to be begging for movie treatment!