Recommendation: If silly Australian crime is your thang
Where to read: This is such Christmas holiday reading, assuming you’ve already read Jane Harper’s entire catalogue
Read with: A bevie from Bandicoot Brewing
In brief: I mean, it’s very dumb. But it is a quick read and is sufficiently enjoyable when you are not in the mood for anything particularly high brow or intellectually challenging. Marks could be deducted for the shameless use of the “detective with personal connection to murder delves into their own trauma as well as the crime” trope but the more crime fiction I read, the more I begin to suspect that it’s fucking mandatory.
Chris Hammer appeared recently at the Blue Mountains Writers’ Festival at a session that I did not attend, but we bought the book anyway. I am not the greatest aficionado of crime fiction as a genre, however I did very much enjoy Jane Harper’s The Dry and I went on a bit of a Tana French marathon a fair while ago so figured this was also worth trying.
I thought we were off to a bad start in the prologue, which I assume was meant to be ‘gripping’ and ‘propulsive’ because it comprised almost entirely of absurdly short sentences but was frankly just a bit silly. Matters improve somewhat as we moved into the actual set up for the novel – a regulator on the Murray river has been blown up and a skeleton discovered, requiring the despatch of homicide detectives. Our main character is one of those detectives, a plucky, young, newly promoted officer who just happens to be from the area and has, of course, very mixed feelings about returning and having to deal with her troubled family. Nell and her investigation in the present day is the main focus for the novel but Hammer also takes us back to the Italian POW camps of WWII (via Nell’s grandfather) and the halcyon days of the 1970s, where Nell’s mother and friends are adjusting to the possibilities that Whitlam’s cancellation of the draft and promise of free university are opening up before them.
Because it is a crime novel, the discovery of the body brings up any number of other historic incidents and trauma. Because it is an Australian crime novel, it is set in a small, troubled town and the community is all sorts of fucked up. And because it is by Chris Hammer, the resolution of all the various story lines seems to involve some bizarre paternity situation. Also, ASIO rocks up for some reason. True to form, Hammer also picks up on environmental themes (the construction of dams across the river, the impact of the drought etc), forced adoption and the shame of single motherhood and, somewhat randomly but very topically, the rise of right-wing extremism and neo-Nazism.
This is not fiction that is going to set the world on fire, neither is it particularly gripping as a mystery. It is, however, perfectly a serviceable crime novel and, heading into the Christmas season, one that I could fairly comfortably condone giving to either a fan of the genre or someone you are buying for out of obligation.