After spending some time in the big smoke (Sydney) in Trust, Chris Hammer returns to the outback in his latest, Martin Scarsden-adjacent novel Treasure and Dirt. Centring around one of the side police characters from the Scarsden series and his local partner, Treasure and Dirt is able to be more of a down-the-line procedural than Hammer’s previous books.
The action of Treasure and Dirt is set in the remote Australian opal mining town of Finnegan’s Gap – a ramshackle collection of buildings surrounded by small opal claims worked by obsessive miners. Finnegan’s Gap is modelled on (and nearby to), the real opal mining town of Lightning Ridge, although the opal haul from the area is lower and when the book opens the town is in decline. As in his other rural novels (Scrublandsand Silver), Hammer delivers a feel for the town and its denizens. The oppressive heat, the hardscrabble existence of the miners and those who rely on them for their business, and the looming presence of the nearby giant coal mine owned by one of Australia’s richest men.
Like all good crime novels, this one starts with the discovery of a murder. An opal miner is found crucified in his mine by a group of “ratters” – opal thieves – who anonymously call the death in, bringing attention from Sydney. Detective Ivan Lucic is sent to investigate but without his superior who is himself being investigated for his role in exposing some high powered corruption in Hammer’s last novel Trust. Lucic’s connection to those events sees him under suspicion aswell. Once in Finnegan’s Gap he is partnered with junior detective Nell Buchanan, a former police officer in the town who found herself promoted to detective after helping bust a local drug ring in a sting that also implicated her superior officer. The two soon find that there is a lot more going on in the town than just a dead miner – including a strange Christian sect on the outskirts of town, and a tousle between two of Australia’s richest minerals investors.
As with other Hammer books, Treasure and Dirt is packed to the gills with plot and bizarrely named characters (including Delaney Bullwinkle and Trevor Topsoil). Hammer manages to keep the underlying mystery ticking along while putting pressure on his two main characters. In order to do this both of them occasionally make questionable decisions but most readers are likely to take those discrepancies in their stride as they move quickly to the next set piece. And while this is a procedural and the two protagonists do solve part of the case, the solution to most of the other mysteries is handed to them in a couple of lengthy bits of exposition from the architects of those schemes.
By moving to police characters at the centre of the narrative as opposed to a reporter, Hammer has delivered a tighter, more internally consistent narrative. He no longer has to rely on his character getting tip offs from the police or being in places that he should not be. Interestingly, though, the fact that Martin Scarsden was given access by the police to sensistive information in the previous book becomes a plot point in Treasure and Dirt. While it seemed okay at the time to readers (and the police officers working with him), working that closely with the media was clearly frowned upon by the “powers that be”, referred to here as “the old guard”.
Overall, Hammer has delivered another engaging crime read in Treasure and Dirt, anchored around two flawed but likeable characters and delivering a strong sense of a place and its unique population.