The lure of Aussie noir
Published in the Sunday Times (02/02/2020)
Even after publishers on three continents snapped his debut crime novel, Scrublands, Australian journalist Chris Hammer was reluctant to call himself a writer. A former foreign correspondent with two critically acclaimed non-fiction books to his credit, Hammer says: "I never felt as if I could call myself a writer because I wasn't earning my living out of being a writer." But he admits that since Scrublands galloped to the top of bestseller lists and won the prestigious John Creasey Award for best crime novel by a first-time author at the UK Crime Writers' Association 2019 Dagger Awards, "I'm feeling far more comfortable with the 'writer' mantle. It was really joyful winning the award, and empowering in a sense too."
Not that Hammer needs much empowerment, with his newly released follow-up novel, Silver, already garnering lavish praise and climbing bestseller charts. Silver continues the story of the journalist protagonist of Scrublands, Martin Scarsden, as he follows his new partner, Mandy Blonde, far from the drought-stricken town of Riversend, where he met her in Scrublands, to the coastal town of Port Silver.
Only he hasn't yet told her Port Silver is his home town, that it holds traumatic memories for him, or that he'd vowed never to return. Indeed, the mystery of Scarsden's own traumatic childhood is as much a part of this intricately plotted thriller as the coastal setting.
"Having the protagonist's emotional journey running parallel with the crime part of the plot is not typical of crime books," says Hammer, "but it's one of the elements that I find most satisfying as a writer. Right from the word go I liked the idea of having nuanced characters."
Scrublands was hailed as a masterpiece for the way it reflects the sense of desperation and isolation in a small, rural, drought-affected community, as much as for the thrilling complexity of its plot and characters. But from the outset Hammer was deeply conscious of the importance of setting, and admits that Scrublands owes its authenticity to the fact that it grew out his 2010 non-fiction, The River, which won the ACT Book of the Year Award and a Walkley Award shortlisting. He spent months travelling through the towns of the stricken Murray-Darling river system during the height of the Millennial drought, talking to farmers and townsfolk in order to write it, and says "it left a lasting impression on me".
Similarly, his vivid evocation of the coastal setting of Silver owes a debt to his 2013 non-fiction book, The Coast, which saw him travelling the length of Australia's eastern seaboard to deliver this account of the economic and climatic changes facing coastal communities.
"The setting helps frame the atmosphere of a book in my own mind, and then when I'm writing it, some of the language emanates from that idea. The setting can also help explain the plot and the motivation of the characters."
Hammer credits the brilliant crime novels of his former university writing teacher, South Africa-born author Peter Temple, who died last year, with opening the door onto the possibilities of the crime genre.
"Temple's final two books, The Broken Shore and Truth, are a real cut above the typical genre book and demonstrated that you can do a lot more with a crime book than just have a plot-driven story; that there's room for setting and character and insights into society as well as good writing."
And while he wasn't even aware of Jane Harper's The Dry before completing Scrublands, he says, "I owe Jane Harper a huge debt of gratitude because the success of The Dry, I think, made it easier for more of us Australian authors." @BronSibree