TREASURE & DIRT by Chris Hammer (Allen & Unwin)
Chis Hammer powered his way into the top echelons of Australian crime writing with his award winning debut novel Scrublands, and consolidated his standing with two good follow-up books about journalist Martin Scarsden.
Now with his fourth novel he turns his attention to the outback opal mining community of Finnigan’s Gap, and a set of largely new characters. Sydney homicide detective Ivan Lucic, who had a minor role in the Scarsden books, is sent to Finnigan’s Gap to investigate the death of an opal miner, who is found crucified and left to rot down his mine. With his usual senior partner, Detective Inspector Morris Montifore, being held back in Sydney over incidents that occurred at the end of the last Scarsden book, Trust, Lucic is accompanied by a young inexperienced investigator with local knowledge of the opal town, Nell Buchanan. Once there they find a strange concoction of desperate miners, jet-setting billionaires trying to do a deal and a strange religious cult. Hampered by uncooperative local police and influential mining interests, they find themselves being investigated by internal affairs as they close in on the killer.
TREASURE & DIRT is a richly plotted novel with various strands that smoothly come together as the book moves towards the bloody climax. Hammer adroitly weaves various elements into his story and regular readers of his books will appreciate the references back to Trust and the continuation of themes from that book.
As with Scrublands, Hammer vividly captures the scorching landscape of Australia and the people who scramble to make a living in a harsh locale. His descriptions are evocative and honest, and he paints the outback in an unsentimental light that captures the beauty and the harshness.
“The rocks are sun-blasted and unforgiving, with only an occasional insinuation of vegetation, most of it stunted, all of it marginal: a twisted cactus, a patch of saltbush, a straggle of box trees.”
With his well-trained journalist’s eye, he quickly captures a scene and effortlessly imparts a wealth of background information on a range of topics from the mechanics of opal mining, to share manipulation and the dangers of dehydration. There are also his usual sharp eyed comments on politics, corruption and the unevenness of opportunity in society.
As with the earlier books, all the characterisations are astute, well developed and subtly drawn. The central pairing of Lucic and Buchanan come across as credible characters with believable flaws and uncertainties, and Hammer maturely develops their working relationship. The other characters are also well developed, and Hammer generally avoids, with the possible exception of one of the mining magnates, the sort of caricatures you often find in crime fiction.
TREASURE & DIRT is a very impressive and enjoyable crime novel. I really enjoyed the depth of the plot and the vividness of the descriptions of Finnigan’s Gap and thought it is probably Hammer’s best novel to date. Some trimming would have enhanced the tension, but overall it is a very fine novel.
Four and a half stars out of five!
Treasure & Dirt is released in Australia by Allen & Unwin on 28 September 2021 and will be released in the United Kingdom, under the title of Opal Country, in 2022.
Thanks to Canberra Weekly and the publisher for an advanced copy of the book for review.