Recommendation: Absolutely not, and I say this as someone who has read a number of Hammer novels recently

Where to read: Brain off, dumb summer holiday reading

Read with: A pint from Thirsty Crow

In brief: This is absurd, over-the-top crime fiction saved only from the pulp bin by Hammer’s unflinching portrayal of the plight of small towns in drought-affected areas. The relationship between the hero and his love interest is, however, a bit too reminiscent of Clive Cussler’s gender politics to make comfortable reading.

Hammer’s first novel is, from my limited experience of his work, his best setting and his worst plot and characters. The setting works brilliantly because it is intimately familiar territory for him – he has previously written a book about communities along the Murray-Darling and the impacts of drought, neglect and decay. In a sense, Scrublands and the fictional town of Riversend is a vehicle for telling some of these stories.

There are, however, problems. Chief among them is the cringeworthy self-insert character, an SMH journalist by the name of Martin Scarsden. Sent to Riversend the year after a brutal mass shooting to write a human interest piece about how the town is recovering (or not), he follows his journalistic instincts and starts digging into the crime. He also strikes up a romance with the absurdly named Mandalay Blonde, a femme fatale many years his junior who also happens to be at the centre of events. The choice of character does give Hammer room to take swipes at some old foes, mostly scummy Channel 10 TV reports and sanctimonious ABC journos (shout out to Media Watch), which is entertaining. But it is also a bit onanistic. More troublingly, poor Mandy Blonde appears to be a collection of tropes collated into an appealingly buxom, half-heartedly characterised package. I would not characterise it as blatantly sexist, but it is very early Bond girl/Clive Cussler sex object/hapless damsel. Other female characters get a similarly rough treatment.

The other problem is the absurdity of the sprawling and overly convoluted plot. What starts as an interesting premise – the murder of 5 men by the beloved local priest – turns into a mangled mess of criminality involving the drug squad, war crimes, the SAS, ASIO, drug cultivation, police corruption, bikie gangs, a convicted fraudster, secret paternity, an inheritance scam and a thirty-something year old rape. There are also shades of Ivan Millat thrown in to keep it spicy. To add to the overkill, the initial explanation given for the murders is that the priest had been abusing children, although this is not really developed. It’s all very silly really.

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