You may have noticed that Antipodean crime writing is in the ascendancy at the moment, some of the most exciting new thriller writers of the last couple of years have come from down under: Jane Harper, Emma Viskic, Vanda Symons, and Chris Hammer among them. It’s like we just discovered Australia and New Zealand all over again! Of course, this isn’t a flash in the pan or a new fad, there’s a strong tradition of thriller writers from the southern hemisphere; Morris West, Thomas Keneally, Garry Disher, Peter Temple et al. What is new about recent crime novels is the use of the unique countryside, exotic eye-catching locations, and the weather, extremes of temperature, almost as characters in the story. Reflecting on climate change and all manner of societal breakdown and dysfunction, including racism. Hammer’s debut novel Scrublands was released to general acclaim in January 2019, Silver is the follow-up, set a thousand kilometres away but also featuring journalist Martin Searsden. Port Silver is a washed-up working town trying to redefine itself as a tourist destination and retirement village in the wake of factory closures and the exodus of young people over the past couple decades. Martin was brought up here but left as soon as he graduated school. He’s only coming back now because his girlfriend has inherited a property up here. Land development deals, the arrival of backpackers and alternative lifestyles have a darker side and the past refuses to stay buried.

Silver is a blockbuster but worth every minute of the time I spent reading it. 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. A lot goes on but Hammer takes his time developing character, offering fascinating glimpses of the past and creating a vivid picture of the modern town before really getting under the skin of a crime that has a more complex explanation than is first apparent. A fascinating read.

The novel opens as Martin approaches Port Silver for the first time in twenty-three years. He remembers playing cricket in the family garden, tennis racket in hand, as the bowler approaches the sun blinds him but he swings anyway, a solid connection, six runs, ball into next door’s garden. Uncle Vern is impressed but his mother vanishes into the house for a phone call, one of the young twins, Enid or Amber, is shouting. Martin’s moment of glory is forgotten because they’ve won the pools. Martin Searsden, now a journalist, is coming back with his girlfriend Mandalay ‘Mandy’ Blonde and her son Liam – a new life. He picks up a sexy hitchhiker Topaz and her boyfriend, Royce McAlister, dropping them at a hostel in town before heading out to Mandy’s place. The door is open, he calls out, no reply, inside there’s blood everywhere, a man’s body on the floor. Then he sees Mandy cowering, going into shock. Martin calls the ambulance, the police and Mandy’s lawyer Winifred Barbicombe at Wright, Douglas and Fenning. He knows she didn’t do it, only six weeks ago she had a knife to the throat of a killer threatening her child and managed to keep her composure. Still, it doesn’t look good.

Sergeant Johnson Pear interrogates Martin back at the station. The victim is local estate agent Jesper Speight, an old friend of Martin’s, so the police check his alibi with the hitchhikers. It checks out but they don’t release him until Sydney Homicide Detective Inspector Morris Montifore arrives to lead the investigation. Martin knows Montifore because they were both involved in the the Riverina case a few weeks ago. Mandy has already been released because the police think the suspect fled the scene. But Martin and Mandy are not out of the woods yet. In town, Martin comes across Jesper’s mother Denise opening their estate agent business for the day. Port Silver used to be a working-class town, now it’s full of retirees and tourists. Jesper was working with a French multinational on a new ecologically sound housing development but there was conflict with a rival development project manager by Tyson St. Clair. According to Denise, St. Clair who would stop at nothing to take over the town. The low-lying land of Mackenzie swamp, prone to flooding, would be renamed Crystal Lagoon but it’s not suitable for development. Hummingbird Beach has been taken over by backpackers and a commune with its own guru. Martin begins his own investigation to clear Mandy and himself, he latches onto the land dispute but is it as simple as that? Meanwhile, the house Mandy has inherited brings back memories for Martin, adventures with Jesper and Scotty as teenagers.

Full of colourful detail the setting for this novel is pitch perfect, really catching the mood of the story. A meaty crime mystery with plenty of originality and excitement.

Silver by Chris Hammer
Wildfire 9781472255358 hbk Jan 2020