Chris Hammer follows up his incredibly popular and successful outback crime novel Scrublands with a shift in location. Gone is the dry river bed and a community under stress. Instead, Hammer moves the action to the increasingly affluent north coast of NSW and the fictional but very typical town of Port Silver. Recently, other local writers have moved away from the inland of Australia to explore coastal communities – authors like Emma Viskic, Holly Throsby and Sarah Bailey have all set books on various parts of the Australian Coast. Making Silver itself part of a vanguard of Australian crime writing still searching for a catchy name – coastal noir, or maybe seachange noir.
The book opens with Scrublands hero Martin Scarsden driving down the escarpment towards his old stomping ground of Port Silver. His now exceedingly wealthy partner, the still unfortunately named and still impossibly beautiful, Mandalay ‘Mandy’ Blonde has decided to move there with her son. She chose Port Silver as she wanted to leave her own past behind and has inherited a house there. As Martin was off writing a book about his previous exploits they never had time to discuss the fact that this was his old home town and moving there would force him to confront his own past. They don’t have much time to talk when Martin arrives and he finds the recently killed body of an old friend in Mandy’s townhouse and Mandy herself curled up on the couch in shock. Besides Mandy being suspected of the murder and the fact that the victim was one of his oldest friends, the journalist in Scarsden cannot help but want to investigate.
There is plenty of contrivance in this set-up but it does spark a genuine mystery that hinges on all of the issues currently affecting the Australian east coast. There are dodgy developers, a meditation retreat, the slow death of the fishing industry, the influx of seasonal backpacker workers, tension between old timers and tourists. All of these issues spin out from the plot and are well explored by Hammer.
Even moreseo, the town of Port Silver and its environs becomes a character in itself. Much like Scrublands there is a helpful map in the front. But the map is very quickly not required as Hammer’s vivid descriptions of the town itself and various locations bring the whole locality to life:
The old fish-and-chip shop, Theo’s is still there, a remnant, with fading Coke signs and a hand-painted declaration that fish is a health food… But the op-shop next door has gone, replaced by a swimwear boutique, a Chinese massage centre next to it. Once vacant blocks had dotted The Boulevarde like missing teeth, providing easy access to the beach on one side and nearby houses and holiday rentals on the other. But now The Boulevarde is growing more orthodontically correct, the vacant lots fewer and farther between…
While Scrublands also had a distinct sense of place, it always felt like Hammer was describing it as a visitor (or journalist). While in Silver, Scarsden is a local and the sense of place for him (and in turn the reader) runs much deeper.
As with the town itself, Martin Scarsden comes out of Silver as a much more developed character. Much of the backstory in this book is his tragic backstory. How he grew up, the tragedy that impacted on his family and what caused him to leave to become a foreign correspondent and not return. Mandy continues to be a bit of a dream creation – beautiful, rich and ultimately forgiving of all of Scarsden’s foibles. Few of the other characters come across quite as rounded as Scarsden and the return of some other old faces from Scrublands while creating some familiarity for readers feels a little forced.
Silver has many of the same elements as Scrublands, for both good and ill. As a crime novel it is too long. While mystery piles on top of mystery, the main driving plot line runs out of steam for a while as Mandy is arrested and released, brought in for questioning and then released and then brought in for questioning again. And while the resolution is satisfying it is a long time coming. However, the range of other mysteries that emerge are all well handled and wrap up logically. While there is a bit of a ticking clock behind the final revelations, Hammer doesn’t overegg the pudding with unnecessary jeopardy.
Hammer has shown in Silver that Scrublands was not a one-off. He has taken what he learnt in that novel and built on it to create a deeper, richer experience. He has delivered a real sense of place and uses the crime genre to explore some very real current social issues and character types. He has also hopefully given Scarsden a new lease on his journalistic life so that if he does reappear it can be with his baggage firmly stowed.