A Cross-Generational Australian Thriller
Chris Hammer’s first three thrillers featured journalist Martin Scarsden; full of complicated, twisty plots that get tied up in the end. All good reads, if a little long, I reviewed the second one, Silver, here. With his fourth novel, Opal Country, Hammer introduced two new protagonists, police investigators this time. Experienced detective Ivan Lucic and rookie sidekick Nell Buchanan. I’ve not read that one, but am very happy to report that his new book, Dead Man’s Creek, needs no backstory filled in – for it is the backstory! Just as in Silver, where Scardsden returns to his home town, in Dead Man’s Creek, we visit Tulong and the surrounding towns where Nell’s folks all live.
The Murray River flows near Tulong and forms part of the state boundary between NSW and Victoria, deeply forested on each side. The forest used to flood, until they built a regulator (like a dammed reservoir across the top of one of the river’s loops) making the water available for irrigation of farmland. When an environmental activist blows the regulator, a body is exposed in its banks.
This will be the first case for Ivan and Nell’s new roles, as an outback murder squad, based out of the regional town of Dubbo, which is still eight hours drive from Tulong. Nell knows that her own family will expect her to visit, they say they’re proud her her, but she knows her agoraphobic mother hadn’t wanted her to become a police officer after what happened to various family members before. She’ll put off the visit until she has to. With the help of local cop Kev, they doggedly pursue leads on the identity of the body, which was decades old. But soon another body is found and a gun; both have still been in the water for years, but not so long as the first. On Nell and Kev’s list of missing persons, the dates fit when her uncle Tycho went missing… she’ll have to talk to her family now.
Having been forced to take a room at the pub as the town’s motel is full of twitchers, Nell’s mere presence as a Buchanan has the landlord and his cronies foaming at the mouth too. There’s a history there she needs to tease out before things get out of hand.
Nell’s investigation begins to unearth more skeletons than you could fill a closet with and their story goes back to just before WWII, but she won’t be able to piece things together for some time yet, putting herself in danger.
The reader though will get more of the story, as Nell’s chapter begin to alternate with the two previous generations through the statements of James Waters, who explains what happened back around 1938, and fifteen-year-old Tessa in 1973 who becomes friends with Tycho Buchanan who is several years older than her.
Naturally, Hammer takes his time with all three threads, gradually teasing out the story and building up the tension, leading us up and down the garden path with twists and turns. It’s fair to say that Nell will never be able to look at her family in quite the same way again by the end – and I won’t say any more about the plot with that tease.
I was riveted to this book in a way that Silver didn’t quite manage to grab me. Hammer has created a superb character in Nell, and this episode will be the making of her as a fine detective for the future. I hope she gets to develop further, although it’s hard to see any cases living up to her own backstory as revealed here though. Hammer’s writing is involving and although this is a chunky book at 474 pages, that’s a hundred pages fewer than Silver, and it’s all the better for it. There’s no need to read Opal Country first, for Dead Man’s Creek stands alone well, but I shall return to it having enjoyed this book so much.
Source: Review copy – thank you. Wildfire Books hardback, 474 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link (free UK P&P).