Scrublands: An epic mystery wrapped up in way too much of everything else

Scrublands book review

What is this about?: Martin, a journalist, journeys to a small town a year after a priest kills five people in a mass shooting. Then, he really finds out what happened

What else is this about?: In terms of the plot, a whole lot more than why a priest killed five people. It’s about Martin dealing with his own PTSD and about a town wrapped up in grief, and trying to come to terms with what has happened

Blurb

In an isolated country town brought to its knees by endless drought, a charismatic and dedicated young priest calmly opens fire on his congregation, killing five parishioners before being shot dead himself.

A year later, troubled journalist Martin Scarsden arrives in Riversend to write a feature on the anniversary of the tragedy. But the stories he hears from the locals about the priest and incidents leading up to the shooting don’t fit with the accepted version of events his own newspaper reported in an award-winning investigation. Martin can’t ignore his doubts, nor the urgings of some locals to unearth the real reason behind the priest’s deadly rampage.

Just as Martin believes he is making headway, a shocking new development rocks the town, which becomes the biggest story in Australia. The media descends on Riversend and Martin is now the one in the spotlight. His reasons for investigating the shooting have suddenly become very personal.

Wrestling with his own demons, Martin finds himself risking everything to discover a truth that becomes darker and more complex with every twist. But there are powerful forces determined to stop him, and he has no idea how far they will go to make sure the town’s secrets stay buried.

A compulsive thriller that will haunt you long after you have turned the final page.

Martin is a journalist, recovering from PTSD and his experiences in Iraq, I think it was? You can see how details stuck in my mind with this one.

At its core, Scrublands is an epic mystery, involving a small town, but the truth of what happened and why a priest became a mass shooter is so much bigger than it. But this is where I am torn.

A small town and a small town vibe

Riversend is the smallest of small towns. Everyone knows everyone else, and are probably related. Secrets are hard to keep in a town like this — unless they’re keeping secrets from a journalist come to their town to write about how they’re recovering from the shooting.

With this mystery, Hammer builds a vivid picture of a town that is dying, of people desperate to keep their secrets. He is an evocative writer, and the picture he draws of the town will place you right there, baking in the sun in Riversend.  There are elements in there that show it off wonderfully, but it also slows down the pace of a complex mystery.

Why did the priest do it?

The answer is far more complex than I expected, and following Martin on the path there was filled with a couple of twists and turns I did not see coming. I would perhaps have liked to have seen more details of some aspects, because I just wanted more.

However, the investigation felt… languid. There was no urgency to it, though if you think about the drought, and a town and its people baking in the Australian sun, it kind of makes sense.

I just felt at some parts I could have done with the urgency instead to get me scared for Martin, or any of the other characters. I need that sort of urgency in books like this, and instead I think Hammer focused too much sometimes on the state of the town, the drought and the descriptions that served their purpose, I guess, but honestly I would have liked more of a focus on they mystery.

Which brings me to characterisation

Martin in essence is the main character, but Hammer populates the town with a series of secondary characters that at times have more… colour than him. I found myself far more invested in them than I thought I would be, and Hammer makes them all distinct, and interesting — which given how many there are, is no mean feat. Even more so when you realise how many are wrapped up in this mystery.

Thing is, while I enjoyed it, I began to feel there was way too much focus on everyone else int he town, and perhaps some side plots it could have done without. I wanted to be on pins and needles through this — I know it’s a mystery, so it doesn’t necessarily need a fast-pace, but I needed to feel more engaged in some respects with it.

It’s towards the end that I think Martin somewhat comes into his own, instead of existing on some level. As I’ve mentioned numerous times above, he’s dealing with PTSD, so you can see how much that was in the back of my mind as I wondered why he wasn’t doing …. more.

I wanted more from Scrublands  but it has at it’s core a complex and utterly compelling plot and mystery that was surprising in its conclusion.

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