Journalist Chris Hammer’s Scrublands – featuring an investigative journalist looking into the seemingly incomprehensible mass shooting by a priest in a small Australian town – was one of my favourite novels of 2018.
It was (is) beautifully written. I still remember the opening paragraphs and pages and how well Hammer transplants we readers into the small town of Riversend.
I was reminded of that in the opening paragraphs and pages of his latest novel, Silver, as he does that very same thing again. We’re there, with Martin as he returns to his childhood hometown and to his memories.
by Chris Hammer
Published by Allen & Unwin
on October 1st 2019
Source: Allen & Unwin
Genres: Thriller / Suspense
For half a lifetime, journalist Martin Scarsden has run from his past. But now there is no escaping. He'd vowed never to return to his hometown, Port Silver, and its traumatic memories.
But now his new partner, Mandy Blonde, has inherited an old house in the seaside town and Martin knows their chance of a new life together won't come again. Martin arrives to find his best friend from school days brutally murdered, and Mandy the chief suspect. With the police curiously reluctant to pursue other suspects, Martin goes searching for the killer. And finds the past waiting for him.
He's making little progress when a terrible new crime starts to reveal the truth. The media descend on Port Silver, attracted by a story that has it all: sex, drugs, celebrity and religion. Once again, Martin finds himself in the front line of reporting. Yet the demands of deadlines and his desire to clear Mandy are not enough: the past is ever present.
Hammer’s writing is again the star of this book. I find it interesting that a journalist can take their attention away from the facts and focus on the surroundings. I’m not a visual person but even I find myself transfixed by the imagery Hammer offers us. How well he offers up a sense of place and how vividly he manages to depict it.
In this case, in particular, our host Martin has his childhood memories to call upon while also looking at Port Silver with fresh eyes.
He looks across the road, a time traveller fresh from his Tardis…
For a moment Martin sees the two towns superimposed: the tough working-class community of his youth and the gentrified retirement village it is becoming. Some fairy godmother has visited in his absence, sprinkling the silver pixie dust of family trusts, self-managed super funds and negative gearing, but sprinkling it unevenly. Struggle town hasn’t gone altogether, but it’s in retreat, pushed inland, away from the water, away from The Boulevarde… pp32-33
I must admit, until I started reading this book I had no idea it again featured Martin Scarsden who we met in Scrublands, along with Mandalay (Mandy).
It’s slightly weirdly coincidental that Mandy’s inherited a house in Martin’s childhood hometown. It’s a place he hasn’t returned to in a couple of decades and she doesn’t know about the connection. I didn’t remember enough of the ending of Scrublands so wasn’t sure of the strength of their relationship, but it seems they’ve perhaps not spent much time together as Martin’s been writing a book based on the events of Riversend while Mandy moved to Port Silver in advance.
Their reunion is muted however because he arrives to find her huddling in a corner of a room with a dead body at its centre. As it happens it’s a childhood best friend of Martin’s and the pair (obviously) become embroiled in the investigation.
Their lack of motive seems apparent, but the local cops are suspicious. Detective Inspector Morris Montifore who we met in Scrublands is back to oversee the murder investigation and at least he’s not entrenched in the small town politics of Port Silver.
It’s a town set to boom and of course that means there’s an interest in property development and large resorts – at the expense of land belonging to traditional owners and some of the native environment.
Martin’s friend Jasper seems to have been involved in discussions about the development and it’s possible he was killed to prevent him talking to Martin, whose arrival was imminent.
The focus falls then on property owners – of which Mandy is now one, along with a missing cheese factory owner and a former high profile surfer now running a wellness retreat complete with its own swami. And of course there are those with their hearts set on development.
There’s a bit happening in the novel and I can’t remember if Scrublands also had a lot going on: the wellness retreat is fraught with rumours; the five year old disappearance of the butter factory owner; the murder of Jasper; the proposed development with its international investors; and… possibly a few local rackets on the side.
It felt a little convoluted at times and though some links are made, others are merely coincidental. There are, however, quite a few twists thrown in… just as we think we’ve got it all worked out.
As I mentioned, I couldn’t remember enough about Martin and Mandy’s relationship in Scrublands and here it doesn’t seem strong enough to withstand the turbulent early days of their reunion. I didn’t get any real sense of connection and in some ways they’re both circling each other nervously as if waiting for one to slip-up. But, like in Scrublands, where Martin arrived in Riversend disenchanted with life in general, there’s an obvious personal ‘journey’ here.
In fact this book, perhaps like Scrublands, is very Martin-centric, and I didn’t get much of a sense of Mandy, DI Montifore or Martin’s uncle Verne…. which may well be on purpose. After all, it’s Martin’s story.
He’s put the events of his war-torn reporting past behind him (kinda) but now thrown back into the tragic events of thirty years earlier. Events that changed him forever. And though he’s unhappy about having to return, he realises that a part of him has remained in Port Silver and his return may be the only place he can heal and recover.
People often talk about the dreaded second book curse…. that – for an author who’s had such a hit first time around, it’s almost impossible to emulate. Expectations are usually unrealistically high.
Silver, like Scrublands is a loooong book. Like 550+ pages (which always scares me), but there’s not a lot of unnecessary padding. The writing certainly felt on a par with that of its predecessor and it’s possibly a style that comes easily to Hammer. Vividly articulate and its sense of place easily rendered. I enjoyed meeting Martin again and still don’t understand why I didn’t realise it was to be the second in the series. At least I’ll be prepared next time around and ready for the next adventure in the series.
A southerly change is on its way, carrying memories with it, isobars of regret. p 78
Silver by Chris Hammer will be published in Australia by Allen & Unwin and available from 1 October 2019.
I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes.