Reviewed by Rod McLary
Chris Hammer’s latest novel The Tilt begins with two incidents each described in some detail and creating suspense from the opening sentence. But are these incidents occurring at the same time in the same place; are they connected in some way; and are they harbingers of what is yet to come? The answers lie ahead in the narrative.
The Tilt is placed firmly within a geographical context – the author’s descriptions of the landscape are captivating and evocative of the Riverina country as in ‘There were dried creek beds and there were ridges, there were stands of river oaks and there were solitary giants: redgums and spotted gums’ . The title of the book refers to a geographical feature in the Riverina area – the Cadell Tilt which straddles the Murray River and has in the past affected its course. References to the geography of the area are frequently made by the characters – some of whom have an intimate knowledge of the creeks and forests.
Detective Constable Nell Buchanan – last seen in Treasure & Dirt – is summoned to the office of Superintendent Derek ‘Plodder’ Packenham, head of Sydney Homicide, to be appointed to a new role. She will reunite with her partner Ivan Lucic from a case solved the previous year at Finnegans Gap. Rural Homicide in Dubbo – ‘a huge career leap’ . Her first case is the investigation of how and why an eighty-year-old skeleton with bullet holes ended up in the regulator. Its discovery soon leads to another and this skeleton is a more recent one.
To begin her investigation, Nell is obliged to return to her home town of Tulong and, as is often the case, various unresolved matters soon emerge to demand her attention. The investigation is further complicated by the connections between the various families and it is challenging at times to remain clear about who is whom. Helpfully, the author has included a family tree at the end of the book as a ready reference.
The structure of the book is in three parts. Alternating with the progress of the investigation is a series of police statements made by James Waters. The relevance is initially unclear but they do provide background detail and, as the investigation proceeds, elements of the statements assume a greater significance. Interspersed between the contemporary narrative and James’ statements are chapters headed ‘1973’ and narrated by Tessa – a fifteen-year-old school girl. Again, the significance of her story is not immediately clear; but connections begin to emerge which explain the contemporary events. As James’ statements move closer chronologically to the current investigation, the various pieces begin to fall into place. There is more than one unexpected connection to surprise even the most jaded reader.
However, The Tilt would not be a first-rate example of rural noir if there was not an even darker side to the town of Tulong demanding to be exposed. Hidden deep in the forests surrounding the township are a motley collection of ‘preppers’, would-be terrorists and neo-Nazis – and chasing them down are undercover ASIO agents. This sub-plot adds a further complexity to Nell’s investigation.
There is a great deal happening in The Tilt but the reader is in the hands of a master story-teller and the various strands are finely balanced. The characters – especially Nell, Tessa, James Waters and Tycho Buchanan – are well-drawn and all are believable. Their backstories provide a depth to the novel so it becomes much more than a crime story. It is a book well worth the reading and few would predict its conclusion.
Chris Hammer has now written five crime books and each is imbedded in the landscape of south-western New South Wales. In The Tilt, the landscape is not simply background but an essential element in the plot as the characters move in and around its creeks and forests.
The author has won many awards for his previous books – most notably the UK Crime Writers’ Association John Creasey Debut Dagger Award for Scrublands  and the ACT Book of the Year Award for Silver .
by Chris Hammer
Allen and Unwin
ISBN 978 176106 741 9
QRC has interviewed Chris Hammer. To read the interview, click here.