Reviewed by Ian Lipke
Chris Hammer introduces the practice of ‘ratting’ in the opening pages of his new novel, which bears the rather pedestrian name of Treasure and Dirt. Finnigan’s Gap, a tiny town little more than able to meet the needs of impoverished miners, is rocked when the body of Jonas McGee is found crucified in his own mine. In the face of fierce resistance, newly arrived Sydney homicide detective Ivan Lucic teams up with Constable Nell Buchanan, an inexperienced investigator from Bourke, to find the culprit and bring him to face justice.
Their road forward is not paved with good intentions. Suspicious of the motives of police in high places who arrest his experienced senior officer just as his insights are most needed in Finnigan’s Gap, Lucic is forced to rely increasingly on the local knowledge and clear thinking of Constable Nell Buchanan. She has her own history, which includes serving in the town in the past before being transferred to Bourke.
Finnigan’s Gap has more than its share of agenda-driven people: long, hot, dusty months and years have seen an uncomfortable mix of people settle in the town or nearby. Businessmen have arrived to try their hands at legitimate enterprises, but religious fanatics, drug dealers and drifters have found common cause and make outsiders unwelcome. Police are especially targeted. In addition to regular nuisances, there are sinister, powerful men who want police initiative suppressed. Questions of corruption and collusion, money, politics, and family feuds surface seemingly at will. The scene where a partly naked Nell is arrested by heavily armed police is particularly upsetting but demonstrates what little power individuals have and what diminishment one can be made to feel by senior officers.
A reviewer can do just so much to draw attention to Hammer’s amazing characters, each with back stories to unpack, each contributing added depth to the already packed story line. It is not possible to remain unmoved by the twists and turns of the plot, and the bravery of some of the characters. Such is the skill of the Hammer pen that evil doers are more real and believable than not. Having said that I will qualify my judgment in the case of master criminals Bullwinkel, Bullshit Bob Inglis and the Seer, who either bored me senseless when they appeared together or severally or were presented as too farfetched to allow me to warm to them. I could imagine that someone as evil as the Seer might operate as he does for a short time but his operations in Hammer’s book do not meet any sort of reality criteria I know.
It is hot in north-western NSW at certain times of year and Hammer is a master in bringing the landscape, with its shimmering heat, to light. He has the touch to make us picture the accursed bush fly, the intricacies of working an opal mine, and the suspicious natures of the miners who scratch the soil to make a dollar.
Setting and narrative are well-handled, but for me, people drive a story and people need to be presented as living creatures in our own universe, as men and women we recognise as neighbours. Hammer has a bit to work on in this regard.
By Chris Hammer
Allen & Unwin
$32.99; 512 pp