Trust by Chris Hammer

Hammer writes blockbuster thrillers, this is the third such in the Martin Scarsdale series, and like the other two it’s worth every page and all the time spent with it. There’s something grand about the themes, the stories say a lot about modern Australian society and yet the action is very intimate, there’s a genuine sense of peril and excitement. And then there’s the writing, elegant and engaging, even if the author himself doesn’t like the use of the term literary to describe his books. Journalist Scarsdale is a fascinating character, plenty of hinterland to explore, and the mysteries he gets embroiled in are initially intriguing and eventually entirely engrossing. This is strong storytelling and long as Trust is you won’t want to put it down. Hammer is one of those authors at the spearhead of an influx of superb new crime writing from Australia.

The big city was always there in the background of Hammer’s brilliant rural crime novels, Scrublands and Silver. They dealt with small town decay and corruption but seemed tainted by a poison spread from the city – the interlopers, the outside forces. Trust brings the big city to the fore, it takes us from Port Silver to Sydney and into a cesspit of corruption, abuse of power and criminality and blurs the lines between the underbelly and respectable society.

Sydney, the past. Tarquin Malloy has the encrypted thumb drive in his hand, finally the evidence of massive fraud and widescale corruption. Now he needs to get safe. When he enters the lift there’s already someone inside, the doors close, there’s a power-cut out, the man has a gun in his hand.

Port Silver, today. Martin Scarsdale and his partner Mandy have been through it in recent times, finally they have peace in their lives, they are happy. Martin is playing on the beach with Mandy’s toddler when his phone rings. His old mate Max Fuller in Sydney thinks he onto a big story, he could do with Martin’s help in exposing a major conspiracy. Martin is reluctant to lea e home for the city so Max leaves him with an open invitation, hoping Martin’s journalistic instinct will kick in. Martin realises he’s missed another call so he plays the message back, it’s a scream, Mandy’s voice, he rushes to the house. there’s no sign of Mandy but there’s a man lying on the floor, knocked insensible but still breathing. Martin recognises Claus Vandenbruk, a cop he ran into eighteen months ago, why is a cop from the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission here and where is Mandy?

As she comes round Mandy realises she’s bound and gagged. There’s a woman removing the tape over her mouth, she recognises Zelda Forshaw. Zelda keeps asking where the money is, Mollinsons’ ten million dollars. Mandy has no idea, everyone thought Tarquin Malloy took it and did a runner, she felt foolish about that as he was her fiancée. He was also sleeping with Zelda who went down for conspiring with Malloy. But Malloy’s body just turned up in the crumbling basement of a block of flats so where’s the money. Zelda’s new partners, killers, want to know if Mandy was involved.

When Martin finds out Tarquin Malloy has resurfaced he heads to Sydney to find Mandy. Max says he can help but he’s dead by the time Martin reaches him. Mandy and Martin are in the middle of something that’s even bigger than a multi-million dollar fraud. It goes to the heart of how the city ticks; nepotism, back scratching, corruption and even murder. A conspiracy so ingrained it’s become the way of life. All the darkness explored in the small town environments of Riversend and Port Silver in the earlier novels is just as present in the city only here it’s bigger, meaner, more deadly.

The scope of this novel is really impressive. I like Hammer’s style, although he was a journalist for thirty years there is nothing matter of fact in the storytelling here, it’s inventive and original. A lot goes on but Hammer takes his time developing character, offering fascinating glimpses of the past and creating a vivid picture of the city before really getting under the skin of a crime that is satisfyingly complex. Full of local colour the setting is pitch perfect.

Personal read 5* group 4*

Wildfire, hardback, 9781472272904, 7/1/21

The Ice by John Kåre Raake

From one extreme to another, hot to cold, south to north and a very unusual location for a thriller – the North Pole. This is murder in no man’s land. Nobody owns The Ice although they all lay claim; the Chinese, the Russians, the British and Americans and even the Norwegians, (in fairness they are closer). Everyone wants a piece of the natural resources here and it’s that international tension and climate change that are the backdrop to this original thriller. This is a story that grips from the explosive opening to the nail-biting ending. The Ice is a classic thriller with contemporary themes but it cleverly uses the tropes of the horror novel to ramp up the spooky atmosphere and increase the darkness. You can feel the tension as murder rips through the small research community many hundreds of miles from civilization. The survivors are on their own, no police, no backup and the weather is closing in by the minute. Readers who like their crime fiction filmic will love the barren and cold vistas in this scenic novel, vividly realised in the descriptive prose. Similarly with the action, because Raake is a screenwriter he brilliantly conjures images of heart stopping power. This is the kind of book once picked up you won’t want to put it down.

Norwegian research scientist Anna Aune is troubled by a faulty seal on her window, why does it matter so much? Remember this is the North Pole and it’s a balmy -20°c but it’s -40°c in the wind chill and a storm is brewing. The problem is a catch would have to come 1400 miles, so for the moment it’s make do and mend. Her problems are nothing compared to Gai Zhanhai from the Chinese research station, half clothed, running from certain death toward…certain death, it’s the beast or the cold. This is the creature’s environment and outside the base Gai is lost but he had to flee. The beast catches him, claws tear at him, in the moment of death he fires a flare into the sky.

Anna and her colleague, professor Daniel Zakariassen, at the Norwegian research facility, a hovercraft, respond to the distress call, they are the only ones near. The Russians in Siberia and the Americans in Iceland won’t act without a formal request for help and they can’t get a response from the Chinese Arctic and Antarctic Administration. Besides the weather prevents any helicopter rescue and will soon close down communications with the outside world altogether. What they find at the Chinese Ice Dragon camp is like something out of a slasher movie, dismembered bodies, but the carnage masks the fact that several of the victims had been shot. As the weather worsens Anna, a former special forces officer fleeing her own demons, and the aged professor have to figure out whether there are any survivors, they can’t escape the logic that the killer must still be nearby. What could have led to this slaughter?

The sense of isolation and the frozen setting are beautifully portrayed, the mystery allows the reader to figure out enough to think they’re on the right track but Raake reserves the best, most surprising elements for the final reveal – the reason everyone had to die, the secret so important nations will kill for it. Perhaps this is an even more haunting novel because of the structures of lockdown. Anna’s past plays well into a story that has a grasp of geopolitics and drama. The Ice is being adapted for TV, I look forward to that.

Translated by Adam King

Personal read 5*
Group read 4*

Pushkin Vertigo, paperback, ISBN 9781782276920, 7/1/21

Reviews by Paul Burke