I’ve very much enjoyed all three books in the Martin Scarsden series by Chris Hammer. I’m constantly surprised how easily the former journalist can transition from reporting cold hard facts to articulating the beauty of the landscape or settings of his books. It’s about his ability to string together words I realise. Something hard to explain or define, but when it’s done well… you know it.
His latest book, Treasure & Dirt, doesn’t feature Scarsden but it’s kinda Scarsden-adjacent as it features police officers we’ve met in that series.Treasure & Dirt
by Chris Hammer
Published by Allen & Unwin
Source: Allen & Unwin
Genres: Crime Fiction
In the desolate outback town of Finnigans Gap, police struggle to maintain law and order. Thieves pillage opal mines, religious fanatics recruit vulnerable young people and billionaires do as they please.
Then an opal miner is found crucified and left to rot down his mine. Nothing about the miner's death is straightforward, not even who found the body. Sydney homicide detective Ivan Lucic is sent to investigate, assisted by inexperienced young investigator Nell Buchanan.
But Finnigans Gap has already ended one police career and damaged others, and soon both officers face damning allegations and internal investigations. Have Ivan and Nell been set up and, if so, by whom?
As time runs out, their only chance at redemption is to find the killer. But the more secrets they uncover, the more harrowing the mystery becomes, as events from years ago take on a startling new significance.
For in Finnigans Gap, opals, bodies and secrets don't stay buried for ever.
I always chuckle when people get excited about opals as my mother is from Quilpie – a Queensland town known for its opal mining. I’m not sure I spent much time out fossicking with my grandfather (and the rest of my family) but mostly remember the bloody flies that besieged the dry outback mines.
It meant however we had heaps of opal jewellery and collections of rocks with seams of opals running through them; and I remember being shocked in my later teens to discover they were sought-after by some.
It seems we met Ivan Lucic (and his boss) in Hammer’s previously novels, although I didn’t remember him. Thankfully it didn’t matter at all. I very much liked him though and Hammer gives his character some texture with personal and professional challenges. I also really liked the pragmatic Nell and would love to meet her again. I appreciated that Ivan praised her work and believed her to be a good cop rather than there be any big-town cop vs small-town cop posturing going on.
Although there’s a murder at the heart of this novel, Hammer again hinges everything off white collar crime. I’ve mentioned this before but I’m less of a fan of plots involving corporate espionage than I am of people with person vendettas or psychopathology. I realise it comes down to personal taste but for me there’s something dispassionate about crimes committed for corporate gain. Having said that Hammer does delve into the topics of mining rights and stock market trading with vigour and obviously knows his stuff… or did a stack of research.
Things get fairly complicated – I wondered if it’s too much so. There are warring mining magnates, a potentially-sleazy cult leader, a tragic car accident decades before along with a later suspicious death as well as police misconduct… some of which may (or may not) be related to the murder under investigation.
Again – for me – the ‘treasure’ (#sorrynotsorry) here is Hammer’s writing. I’ve commented in the past that I’m not visual (which I discovered thanks to author Emma Viskic via Twitter is called aphantasia). It means I don’t often appreciate descriptive prose. I can however, appreciate the beauty in words, phrasing. In sentences that sing. Paragraphs that you don’t want to leave behind. I said the same about his previous books – that Hammer’s able to offer prose that go beyond the visual. They translate into something beautiful that doesn’t need to be seen.
Now some mighty switch out in the Pacific has altered its orientation and the rain clouds have returned, sweeping in week after week, painting the flatness with variations of green, even this far from the coast. Water is spread across the landscape, the sun flashing back at him from farm dams and ephemeral marshes, rivers and creeks. For a moment it captures him, this panorama of life renewed. He’s reminded, with this aerial perspective, of Aboriginal paintings, the land from above, imbued with spirit, replete with hidden meanings and of unspoken significance. For a moment the magic of it resonates within him, the magnitude. But only for a moment. He shakes off the idea; he’s a policeman, not a philosopher. There is a job to be done. There’s nothing special to be read in the landscape; painting it a different colour doesn’t alter its essential emptiness. p16
‘… painting it a different colour doesn’t alter its essential emptiness.’ *cue contented sigh*
Treasure & Dirt by Chris Hammer was published in Australia with Allen & Unwin and is now available.
I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes.