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There's this idea floating around that you shouldn't keep more than 30 books in your house.

It started on a Netflix show with professional declutterer Marie Kondo, but I haven't seen it. All I get is the version that comes around on social media, presumably from people who either subscribe to the advice or are violently opposed to it. I mean, there aren't 30 books in our bathrooms, but other than that I don't think you can find a room in our house that doesn't have more than 30 books in it.

And this is a year after I started giving away books. We still have thousands. And we will probably move most of those into the new house. But I understand the point -- don't hold onto things unless they give you joy. Or unless they have some utility. That's why I've been donating books and pawning them off on friends.

Nowadays, when I'm reading a book, there's a part of me that's humming like an Amazon algorithm -- I'm thinking about which or whether any of my friends would like it. Scrublands (Atria, $26.99) by Australian writer Chris Hammer will go to someone who likes James Lee Burke and Daniel Woodrell. It's classy, high-end detective fiction with pretensions to literature. I enjoyed it in the same way I enjoy (some) Clint Eastwood movies. It's not going to stick around and haunt my consciousness, but is a fair job of work.

Chris Hammer is the author of "Scrublands."
Chris Hammer is the author of "Scrublands."

Hammer, I intuited and the Internet confirmed, is a veteran journalist. For 30 years he "divided his time between covering Australian national politics and international affairs." This is his first novel and I imagine the protagonist, Martin Scarsden, has a few things in common with the author.

He's a veteran journalist too, with experience overseas. Before this story starts, he was at the center of a story in the Middle East, and his latest assignment was at least in part imagined as a kind of therapy for the traumatic ordeal he underwent. He has been sent to Riversend, a dying drought-plagued town in the Australian outback, to file a report on how the town is faring a year after a sensational crime occurred.

The town's priest, Byron Swift, killed five members of his congregation with a rifle, then was killed in turn by young constable Robbie, who happened to be his good friend. What Martin's editor expects is a poignant piece about a dying town slowly recovering from a senseless, unparsable crime. There are only the vaguest hints as to why the priest went off -- rumors of pedophilia.

Yet when Martin arrives, he finds the residents resentful and uncooperative. Many of them feel the media has dragged Swift's name through the mud -- a lot of them, including the cop who shot the priest down, seem to feel that he was a pretty good guy. Only the (naturally) beautiful and (conveniently) available single mother with the (improbable) name Katherine Blonde who runs the town's bookstore seems willing to give Martin the benefit of the doubt, though, like the good newspaperman he is, he eventually manages to get a few others on the record.

The stories the locals tell don't jibe with the award-winning account Martin's newspaper published -- written by Martin's chief professional rival, D'Arcy Dafoe, whom Martin grudgingly concedes is a more fluid writer but whom he suspects of a certain lack of journalistic rigor. Martin becomes more invested in the story now that he understands it might undercut the facile Dafoe's work and reputation.

Hammer is really good when he's writing about writing, especially writing for a newspaper:

Martin files again, including Swift in his main story, then knocking out a side piece, speculating wildly about Swift's potential involvement [in another crime]. ... He includes Robbie's theory that the priest and the alleged rapist Harley Snouch were in it together, attributing the information to police sources, joining the dots for the readers in a flurry of inspiration, indignation, and righteousness. And, as he writes, it feels good to purge himself on the computer screen, to vent his anger at the two perpetrators ... both of whom had somehow inveigled him into doubting their guilt.

That's an honest critique; there's no such thing as objectivity, and about the best we can hope is that whoever is sitting behind the keyboard or microphone delivering what we receive as "news" is self-aware enough to understand how biased and wishful (and sometimes petty and vengeful) they can be. Martin is excited about what he's writing, and he understands the consequences it can have for his own career and reputation. It's not just about the subjects of the story.

Since this is a thriller/mystery, there are a number of reversals. That's the ride we signed up for and Hammer handles them all right, even though some genre fans might feel the novel unfolds a little slowly. But I could have stayed a little longer in the Riversend Hammer conjures. Good on ya, mate.

Still, I'm not hanging on to this one.

Email:

pmartin@arkansasonline.com

blooddirtangels.com

Style on 01/20/2019

Print Headline: Scrublands covers small town murder journalistically

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