Dirt Town by Hayley Scrivenor

Reviewed by Ian Lipke

This is a debut novel that shows much promise. Not only do the characters help the story develop but they make a further contribution in their adding to the setting, while at the same time the setting is enriching them. The story maintains interest if it does not exactly leap into prominence because of its originality. It is a safe story, having sufficient flexibility to allow any of a half dozen people quite capable of donning the killer’s mantle.

The plot is simple. On a sweltering afternoon in Durton, best friends Ronnie and Esther leave school together, but Esther does not arrive home. Ronnie can’t believe it. Detective Sergeant Sarah Michaels and school friend Lewis can believe it but have reasons of their own not to broadcast what they know. The denouement appears after every combination of life in a small town is brought into public gaze.

Having lived in a small town, I could identify with the townspeople’s desire to maintain silence about their own affairs. Privacy is paramount. At the same time, the very human desire to know is unleashed when the amount of information is limited and finite. Creating stories out of nothing becomes a favourite activity. A good example appears on page 63 where Constance observes an interaction between Steven and Shel:

[Shel] pushed her shoulders back Steven said something that Constance couldn’t hear. Then there was Shel’s pinched face saying something through clenched teeth. What were they talking about?

More than enough to send the rumour mill out in force.

The book goes out of its way to demonstrate that those who administer the law have lives of their own and are subject to the same societal pressures as anybody else. Sarah Michaels is concerned throughout that a friend may be levelling charges against her. Yet, despite this concern she maintains her focus on the job. This appears to be a feature of Scrivenor’s writing. When this author writes, we know that her focus will remain confined to the issues of moment.

I must admit that the solution to Esther’s death was a let-down. It was just too easy. A tense, tight story requires a more significant exit than the one proposed for Esther. To add to the weakness was the extended period added to the plot once the killer was identified. Interest has long departed by then.

A further weakness in the presentation caused me much frustration. This was the practice of labelling each chapter e.g.  as We (date), Lewis (date) and so on. Other, more sophisticated, models exist.

This is not one of my favourite stories, despite its obvious strengths.

Dirt Town

(2022)

By Hayley Scrivenor

Macmillan

ISBN: 978-1-76098-719-0

$32.99; 368 pp

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