Former journalist Martin Scarsden had vowed never to return to Port Silver so I was not too sure about his inauspicious homecoming nor his strained relationship with girlfriend Mandalay (Mandy) Blonde. She has inherited an old house on a clifftop, while Martin seems distant from everything happening around him, plagued by unsettling flashbacks from his unsettled past. And long-ago deaths in his family.
As the plot twists and turns with great characters and best-ever location, I was there strolling along the Port Silver shoreline; eating fish and chips; watching the waves break on Hummingbird Beach; driving the coastal road with Martin Scarsden as he tries to solve the stabbing death of his childhood friend Jasper Speight. Unfortunately Jasper died in Mandy’s apartment and she is being held for his murder so Martin works on clearing her name using the only clue, a blood-stained postcard.
Over nine days, Martin’s exploits unfold and move inexorable towards their goal, every question important to building the story and solving the first murder mystery. Yes, not one but two mysteries, and I like the way Chris Hammer does not describe so much as lets slip small details until they add up to a whole.
Mandy’s creepy old Hartigan house on the clifftop is suitably introduced in Disney ‘Goonies’ fashion.
Characters formed before my eyes—all with big question marks hovering over their heads. The mellow reunion with Martin’s Uncle Vern; the glowing backpackers Topaz and Royce; real estate agent Jasper’s mother Denise; Jay-Jay Hayes surfie greenie conservationist of Hummingbird Beach; sleazy bigwig developer Tyson St Clair; oddball Swami Hawananda; and dishonest cop Johnson Pear to name a handful.
Despite youthful recollections and emotional hurdles, Martin keeps working on the murder case, annoying the police and local land developers with questions and questionable behaviour. He gets hauled in occasionally for interrogation and was appointed a scruffy solicitor Nick Poulos to handle his case. Then comes a tragic mass murder … or ritual suicide?
At this stage, I am undecided if I am meant to have sympathy for Martin or not. He certainly makes mistakes and isn’t good boyfriend material. But he’s an inquisitive bloke, and a good journo who pursues the secondary crime of the multiple deaths. The scoop of the decade! By chapter 24, he’s in his element, following up leads, discovering clues, writing copy, advising Terri, editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, topping it off by having dinner with media buddies just like old times. Hmm.
An overarching question: what happened to his mother and sisters? I think it’s stretching it to say Martin did not have an inkling about what happened all those years ago. School mates, friends, even his alcoholic father could have babbled. As to the possible perpetrators, I was spoilt for choice. The only one I could happily cross off the list was Liam, the nappy-filling baby son of Mandy.
I love Aleksander J. Potočnik’s map of Port Silver. The setting is similar to Byron Bay and my photographs, taken on an overcast day, show the iconic Cape Byron Lighthouse.
The lighthouse sits on a rocky headland, Australia’s most easterly point. That’s what I pictured in my mind while reading. The beaches, lighthouse, Nob Hill, coastal views, inland sugarcane fields and menacing land development which are strongly portrayed by the author. Landmarks like the ‘fictitious’ old Cheese Factory give off furtiveness vibes.
Heading towards Martin’s hard won resolution, author Chris Hammer deserves top marks for not changing certain Australian words which some readers may not understand but will eventually figure out. I think it’s time to stop neutering, let readers learn, laugh and speak our colloquial sayings.
Grab this book and be swept away by the tidal undertow of crime and mystery—well worth it.
♥ Gretchen Bernet-Ward
Chris Hammer was a journalist for more than thirty years, dividing his career between covering Australian federal politics and international affairs. He holds a BA degree in journalism from Charles Sturt University and a Master’s degree in international relations from Australian National University.
Chris has written an award-winning non-fiction book ‘The River’ followed by crime fiction ‘Scrublands’ published 2018 and shortlisted for Best Debut Fiction at the Indie Book Awards. Chris lives in Canberra with his wife and two children.
Website https://chrishammerauthor.com/ Recommended ‘The Coast’ a journey along Australia’s eastern shores by Chris Hammer https://www.mup.com.au/books/the-coast-paperback-softback