CRIME CULTURE: A priest massacres members of his own church congregation in a drought-ridden New South Wales town. Charles Sturt University academic, Therese Taylor, explains why the newly released Scrublands is such a timely novel.
This novel has appeared at just the right time. It depicts drought in western NSW, the shadows of church scandals, and the long-term consequences of living with Defence Force members who commit war crimes in Afghanistan.
All of these themes are being vividly reflected in the news. The drought is wringing people’s hearts. The rumours about what did or didn’t happen in Afghanistan are still being investigated by NSW Supreme Court judge Paul Brereton.
Whatever the results of his enquiry, the stories out of Afghanistan will inevitably be followed, in the future, by another story – what is going to happen when these charming people, recently described as ‘compassionate psychopaths’ come home.
Scrublands is an atmospheric novel. It is set in a declining Riverina town, very hard hit by drought, where the street is filled with shuttered shops, and families live on inherited assets and disputed memories. All of these are well set out, and Chris Hammer is a talented writer.
The story follows an investigation of a massacre at a church, by a priest who suddenly opened fire on a group of men in his congregation, and then died at the scene. This violent event is still unexplained, a year later, when journalist Martin Scarsden comes to the town to write a retrospective story. Soon his questions set off suspicious reactions, and then, there are further deaths.
Like several recent novels written by journalists, Scrublands offers some sharp and amusing cameos of media rivalries and questionable ethics. The novel shows how Martin Scarsden can never really trust anyone, and neither can anyone entirely trust him. This ambivalence goes right to the end of the novel. The story is fully resolved, but the conclusion is only gently optimistic. There is some hope, and also there are some enduring harsh realities.
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Scrublands is fairly accurate in its review of Riverina society. However, the fact that the shooter is an Anglican clergyman is poorly explained. Indeed, he is referred to, all throughout the novel, as “a priest”, and readers might assume that he is Catholic.
The religious institutions in rural Australia are not as well set out, in Scrublands, as the media organisations. Hammer after all was a journalist for more than thirty years before he published his first book, The River, in 2010.
In real life, it is likely the Bishop, who is only mentioned in passing in this novel, would be constantly being interviewed, and would be obliged to explain a lot more about the reasons why this tragic and violent person was in this post.
Other aspects of Riverina culture are much more effectively drawn. There is the awareness that in some deprived rural areas, drug production is the only viable form of cash income. Even respectable and law abiding people keep a troubled distance from this, and cannot fully disapprove, because they are aware of the bleak alternative.
Scrublands also touches on the rumours about serial murders, and the unease which surrounds the topic of missing backpackers.
It’s an old cliche, but once you start this novel, you will not be able to put it down. A very good Australian thriller.
Scrublands is published by Allen & Unwin. ISBN: 9781760632984.