Treasure and Dirt

Recommendation: It is a bizarre mix between ‘what in the Jonestown, ‘what in the Alabama’ and ‘why are we now talking about shorting stock and bribing cops with inside information’

Where to read: Again, solid holiday reading. Indeed, having your brains baked out of you by the heat would probably augment the reading experience.

Read with: It’s got to be a XXXX Gold

In brief: I mean, corporate lawyers get a bad rap in this so I am not a fan of that, obviously. I also don’t know any Australian lawyers who refer to themselves as ‘attorneys’. The small town hick-fuckery, for want of a better term, is all suitably entertaining for big city readers but the novel flails when it ventures into the corporate world.

My second Chris Hammer novel, Treasure and Dirt sees Sydney homicide detective Ivan Lucic sent off to Finnegan’s Gap, a small Opal mining town near Lightning Ridge, to investigate a crucifixion. He is assisted by Nell Buchannan, who takes centre stage in his latest novel The Tilt, a rookie on secondment from Bourke. Because fictional detectives have to be haunted by something and have some kind of weakness, he is the son of a war criminal, a gambling addict and is currently under investigation by the internal affairs team due to his partner’s conduct on previous, high profile investigations into corrupt politicians and businessmen.

Finnegan’s Gap is a decaying town, stuck between old school opal mining, where every man has a small claim that he mines attempting to get rich, and a new modern coal mine owned by a billionaire. It’s always 40 degrees out and the flies are anywhere (and impervious to insect repellent). Similarly, our detectives find themselves stuck between small town motives for murder and grand conspiracy by one billionaire to fuck over his former business partner who is also a billionaire, one of whom is a thinly disguised parody of Clive Palmer. For my money, this aspect is the weakest part of the novel, with Hammer struggling to explain fairly complex (or incomprehensible) set of corporate chicanery involving a fraud scheme, shorts in several companies and the kind of blatant market manipulation that tends to result in very expensive litigation and class action lawsuits.

There is also, because why not, a cult near the town and a weird subplot involving drug dealing and even more police corruption. The significance of the cult becomes apparent later in the novel, as it provides both the opportunity for a fun shoot out and the source of a paternity dispute. I am obviously working from a small sample, but it seems to me that Hammer has a thing about fucked up families, secret children and a general assumption that no one in small town Australia sleeps in their own beds. There’s also some kissing cousins, at which point I was about ready to throw hands. Another, more interesting, tendency is to cast interesting, often unsympathetic characters as his victims – this seems more realistic (they are people you can well imagine people might want to kill) and is a refreshing break from the ‘blonde teenage virgin, or is she’ trope in so much crime fiction.

Hammer also does well here in providing a partial, unsatisfactory ending. Protected by layers of lawyers, influence and deniability, the man we suspect is the true culprit is very likely to go free and the under resourced police have to walk away with a promise that he will regret it in other ways. They also get a couple of wins from historic cases and the seeming end of internal investigations into their own conduct, but fundamentally justice will not be done.

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