SCOTT BUTKI’S INTERVIEW WITH CHRIS HAMMER

In Scrublands, Australian author Chris Hammer writes about a journalist, Martin, sent to a drought-ravaged town in Australia where the one year anniversary of an event is coming up: A year earlier a priest, minutes before a weekend service, stood on the church steps with a gun and shot several people before being killed himself.

Scrublands Cover ImageMartin finds things are not as it seems as far as the story told about the incident and, while investigating, there are fires, a fatal car accident and he falls in love with a local resident.

The old journalism rule about not becoming part of the story is broken repeatedly. This book has twist after twist including Martin publishing stories that seem accurate at the time, but soon turn out to be otherwise. This is great writing that will keep surprising you.

Hammer was a journalist for more than 30 years before becoming a full-time novelist with the success of Scrublands.  He served as an international correspondent, the chief political correspondent for The Bulletin and a senior political journalist for The Age. His first nonfiction book, The River, was awarded the ACT Book of the Year Award and was shortlisted for the Walkley Book Award.

As a lover of good mysteries and a former journalist myself, I recommend this book

Hammer agreed to let me interview him via email.

Scott Butki: How did you come up with this story?

Chris Hammer: I have no idea where large parts of the story came from. For example, mass shootings are rare in Australia – those that do occur are typically domestic murder-suicides. I know of no real-life basis for the homicidal priest Byron Swift, here or in the US.

I was a journalist for 30 years, including extensive stints as a roving foreign correspondent, so those helped inform protagonist Martin Scarsden – for example, I did report from Gaza.  But character-wise he is unlike me.

I travelled through large parts of inland Australia about ten years ago at the height of the ‘Millennial Drought’ – the deepest and most prolonged since European settlement – researching my non-fiction book The River. I visited towns where the river had literally run dry. So the setting for Riversend is based on that.

There was a case some years ago involving Australia’s most infamous serial killer, a man named Ivan Milat. He would pick up hitchhikers, torture and kill them. It’s likely one story line grew from that seed.

There are other bits and pieces that may have origins in real life but much of it has bubbled up from the imagination. Which is good – it encourages me to think I can write more books like this!

Scott: Which came first, the priest and other characters, or the plot?

Chris: The idea of the priest, Martin and Mandy came first. The plot changed and changed again, evolving over time. Entire plot lines and several characters were thrown away and new ones developed. I reckon I discarded more than 200,000 words before settling on the final manuscript.

Scott: The press release for your book states, in part: “The ever-growing popularity of Australian authors like Liane Moriarty, Hannah Kent, and Kate Grenville proves that American readers are hungry for stories about the land down under, a country that feels remarkably familiar while remaining a world away. Interestingly, it turns out that Australia has a wild west, too, and it’s strikingly similar to ours.” Do you think this is the case? Also, are Australians interested in America’s “wild west?

Chris: Australia is a large country, but our population is relatively small. In the past, we have been wholesale importers of culture: movies, tv, books, music, particularly from America and Britain. We still are. So Australians are far more familiar with American culture than vice versa. For example, my dad was a big John Wayne fan and his favourite movie was Shane. So yes, Australians are/were interested in the wild west, as they are with other aspects of American culture.

I’m not sure there is anything particularly wild about the west in either the US or Australia nowadays. Certainly not in the sense they are lawless.

I think Australia does capture the imagination of Americans, who might see it as simultaneously familiar and exotic. I have met Americans who hold an almost nostalgic view of Australia: they see it as a more innocent version of the US, like America used to be. They often warn me: “Don’t do this or that, or you will end up like us.”

Scott: As a former journalist myself, I found myself cheering along journalist Martin Scarsden. Is Martin based on journalists you have known and/or aspects of yourself?

Chris: Scrublands is certainly informed by my past as a journalist, although Martin isn’t based on any particular person(s), and certainly not myself. Certainly, much of the journalistic process in the book is familiar to me, as is the way journalists act and the way they view the world and their craft. However, Martin is no exemplar: he is constantly getting stories wrong! This was one of the ideas I had from the start; a protagonist who gets things wrong.

Scott: How has your career of journalism helped you when writing this novel?

Chris: The discipline of writing is there. While some aspiring writers may wait for inspiration and struggle with writer’s block, no journalist can tell their editor that they aren’t feeling inspired and may not file!

I don’t get too attached or sentimental about what I’ve written and I don’t get precious during the editing process. Particularly in television, editing material and parring it back is all part of the process.

For many years I made long-form television reports of around 30 minutes in length. I think this has helped me with pacing and structure and developing through-lines i.e. leading a reader through a story.

Scott:  Do you have any thoughts or questions you hope readers will take away from this book?

Chris: Not really. I hope they enjoy it and that it might fire their imaginations. There is a theme there of inter-generational trauma, but the book is not meant to be didactic.

Scott: Was it hard switching from non-fiction to fiction?

Chris: No, I found it liberating. Now I get paid for making stuff up. How good is that?

Scott: How do you feel about your writing being compared to Jane Harper and James Lee Burke?

Chris: It’s a compliment, of course. I guess it’s natural for debut novelists to be likened to established writers. That said, I certainly haven’t modeled my writing on any other author, at least not consciously. I hadn’t heard of Jane until I’d finished the first draft of Scrublands, but I’m honoured to be compared with her. And grateful. I think the success of The Dry has almost certainly helped other Australian crime writers, myself included, to find publishers and readers in the US and elsewhere.

Scott: Are you hoping this will be the start of a series?

Chris: Yes. I am well into the follow up to Scrublands (which was published July 2018 in Australia). We have a tentative Australian publication date of late 2019 for the next one. It again features Martin and Mandy. And there’s likely to be a third book as well.

MURDER IN THE AFTERNOON RETURNS TO MARSIELLES WITH CHOURMO

Our June Murder In The Afternoon book club will be celebrating International Crime Fiction Month with a discussion by one of France’s most celebrated crime writers. Chourmo is the second installment of Jean Claude Izzo’s Marseilles trilogy. Once again, the romantically tarnished knight Fabio Mantale navigates this port city of many cultures on a quest for private justice and other things unattainable.
Mantale has left the force, mainly due to the events from the first book in the trilogy, Total Chaos, but the cousin he used to be in love with puts him back on the streets. Her son who was having a Romeo & Juliet style affair with an Arab girl has gone missing. The search involves organized crime, religious extremism, the city’s politics, and early on the murder of his informant, Serge, creating a second mystery.
Chourmo deals with several different themes, both old and new love, intolerance, the culture of Marseilles. We will try to cover as much as we can. Join us with your thoughts Monday the 18th1PM, on BookPeople’s third floor. Chourmo is 10% off for those planning to attend.
Next month, July 16, we will be discussing Craig Johnson’s Dark Horse with the author calling in.

Shotgun Blast from the Past: Two from Simenon

  • Post by Director of Suspense Molly Odintz

 

Simenon is my favorite writer to capture post-war European malaise (when he wasn’t banging away at his numerous and utterly charming Inspector Maigret novels), and the contrast between his pre-war and post-war work shows the same loss of innocence and sense of amorality verging into guilt that defined much of European literature in the 1950s and 60s.

I recently picked up Simenon’s The Blue Room (La Chambre Bleue) after it had been abandoned by a browsing customer. I felt compelled by this sleazy tale of cheating and betrayal from the very first sentence, as one lover asks another, “Did I hurt you?” The answer may be “no” to start with, but as we dive further into this sordid tale of cheating husbands and wives, it’s hard to believe the answer will remain “no” for much longer.

After a lovers’ chat in a hotel room ends abruptly with the unexpected return of the woman’s husband, the narrative veers back and forth between an ongoing affair between two married people and police interrogations of the cheating husband (as unreliable a narrator as can be). The affair began after a chance meeting by the side of the road, as a man stops to help a woman change a tire, only to realize that when the two were together at school, she had a crush on him the whole time.

At first put off by her statuesque beauty, describing her as seemingly made of stone, the man takes the woman up on her offer to finally kiss him and discovers an unbridled sensuality that both appeals to him and frightens him. Not a first-time cheater, but a first time participant in a long-term affair, the man feels no guilt, only fear. He worries that this time, his dutiful, meek wife will discover his extramarital affairs and put an end to what seems to him to be a perfect life. As we read further into the novel, the police ask him disquieting questions about the nature of his marriage and the details of his affairs, as he reveals all while protesting involvement in an as-yet-unspecified crime.

The Blue Room is as explicit and as menacing as many of the NYRB releases from Simenon, despite its publication as part of Penguin Classics’ reissues (which have tended to concentrate on the Maigret series). It has the feel of a Patrica Highsmith novel; The Blue Room exudes dark sensuality while it pillories the hypocrisy of the 1950s successful, obsessed with the appearance of success while continuing to embrace their darkest desires in secret.

Collectively, his non-Maigret novels are known as “romans durs,” or hard novels, most of which Simenon wrote during the war while holed up with his wife and mistress, and immediately after the war, while still living quite happily with both women. One wonders if he was able to have a reasonably functional relationship with not one, but two women (and any number of others) because he poured out his more sadistic images of sexuality into the pages of these novels. Anyone who watches enough horror films will agree that lust, obsession, and violence, inextricably entwined, make for very good entertainment. I encourage the readers of this blog to embrace the voyeurism inherent in the crime genre and check out The Blue Room, and Simenon’s other sultry, sordid tales.

Chief among Simenon’s romans durs, for me anyway, is my favorite of his wartime novels, Dirty Snow. This novel also happens to be one of the only works I’ve finished in French. Simenon’s deceptively simple sentence structure and oh-so-disturbing themes make his works perfect for practicing one’s language skills, although I am grateful to Penguin and NYRB for their superb translations of his work. In Dirty Snow, or La Neige Etait Sale, the snow isn’t the only thing turned to grey miserable slush – each character was morally ambiguous even before the war began, and in their lives under the occupation, they descend to new levels of compromising behavior.

Dirty Snow follows Frank Friedmeier, son of a brothel owner catering to Nazi officers, after he kills a German soldier late at night and wanders aimlessly through the streets of Brussels, unsure of the meaning of his act but ready to say the literary equivalent of “f*** you” to anyone who tries to stop him. He is the ultimate antihero, and like his mother’s assistant (a former prostitute suffering from long-term injuries caused by a sadistic German) the reader can’t help but find him attractive, even while full of disgust for both the character and his actions. His only saving grace is his behavior after his sudden and unexpected arrest by the occupying forces. He refuses to cooperate, and his belligerent behavior, ruthless and dastardly when it comes to his mother’s workers, turns into something resembling nobility when directed at occupying Nazis.

Most antiheroes are tempered by their love for at least one other person in their lives. Holden Caulfield had his brother, Dallas Winston had Johnny, Dexter Morgan had his adoptive family, and so one. Frank Friedmeier is more along the lines of a Thomas Ripley, or a Pinkie Brown (of Grahame Greene’s Brighton Rock) if suddenly in the midst of their schemes and sprees they had been placed in a scenario wherein continuing the same behavior suddenly made their actions honorable.

Frank taps into a vicious part of ourselves that values honesty over morality. He sees his world as it is, not some version of what it could be, and his ability to survive for a time in occupied Brussels makes for interesting fodder in discussing sociopathic behavior in wartime. One has the sense that for Frank, life is filth and always has been, and the Nazi takeover of his nation only confirms what he already suspects the world to be.

Dirty Snow is light-years ahead of the same conclusion’s arrival at the cinemas in the French film Lacombe, Lucien. The film recounts the story of an amoral teen from the countryside who, after he is deemed too young to join the French Resistance, joins the Gestapo instead. Lacombe, Lucien explores the uncomfortable nature of impulsive choices made outside any moral parameters. The screenplay, recently reissued by Other Press, was written by Patrick Modiano, a crime writer and Nobel Prize winner whose father survived the war through collaboration.

No one likes a hypocrite, yet anyone with a strong concept of morality is almost invariably a hypocrite – if we stuck to all of our own rules, we’d live miserable lives full of second-guessing and free of compassion and compromise. Every once in a while, though, I find it refreshing to read the story of a badly behaved character who stays consistent to his lack of morality for the whole ride. The characters in Simenon’s Romans Durs  never change – they merely enter into increasingly bad situations, where inevitable consequences put an end to their bad behavior once and for all.

You can find copies of many of Simenon’s works on our shelves or via bookpeople.com. 

MysteryPeople Review: ODD NUMBERS by Anne Holt

MysteryPeople Contributor Scott Butki splits his time between education, advocacy, and reviews and interviews. You can find a full list of his interviews and reviews at http://thinkingandtalkingandacting.blogspot.com/2015/11/an-index-of-my-interviews-with-authors.html. Below, you’ll find his review of Anne Holt’s latest Norwegian noir, Odd Numbers,  a disturbing and timely read. 

  • Review by MysteryPeople Contributor Scott Butki

9781451634730With Odd Numbers Anne Holt has written a fascinating, intricate novel about life in Norway in awful, exhausting circumstances. The book is the ninth and penultimate in her series featuring cold case specialist Hanne Wilhelmsen.

The novel’s action begins with a bomb going off in an upscale part of Oslo, targeting the Islamic Cooperation Council’s headquarters and killing 23 people. Law enforcement suspects an extremist organization is responsible for that and future attacks. That said, they are finding it hard to prove that assertion.

Holt does an excellent job explaining what characters in Norway think about Muslims living in Norway – some are racists, some encourage diversity, and many draw less clear lines.

Interestingly, Holt explains in a postscript that “comments placed, directly or indirectly, in the mouths of extremists on both sides in the novel are slightly paraphrased quotes from real statements.”

This part of the novel was difficult for me to read considering all of the seemingly senseless attacks against civilians around the world in recent months and years. In a word, it’s still too raw.

It probably didn’t help that I finished this book and typed up this review the weekend Nazis and white supremacists rallied in Charlottesville, Va., reminding us that the kinds of hate Holt described are front and center here still.

There’s a subplot that I prefer regarding solving a cold case decades old, with more interesting characters and plot twists.

I am new to Holt’s writings and would probably have liked and understood some parts of the book better had I read the earlier novels. That said she proves with this book why Jo Nesbo has called her the “godmother of modern Norwegian crime fiction.”

You can find copies of Odd Numbers on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

 

International Crime Fiction Pick: EASY MOTION TOURIST by Leye Adenle

  • Post by Director of Suspense Molly Odintz 

9781911115069Out from Cassava Republic, a press specializing in the new wave of Nigerian writers, Leye Adenle’s Easy Motion Tourist is superb international crime fiction. Set in the sprawling metropolis of Lagos, Easy Motion Tourist follows a British web journalist on assignment to cover the Nigerian election. Just arrived in the city and out to enjoy the nightlife, the journalist instead witnesses a ritual murder of a prostitute just outside a popular nightclub catering to wealthy clientele and foreign tourists. The hapless Brit immediately gets himself arrested when he attempts to cover the story; the neighborhood cops want the crime hushed up, worried about its potential impact on tourism in their posh part of town.

Enter local activist Amaka, whose mission is to protect Lagotian prostitutes from the dangers of their profession. She has other plans for the investigation. She secures the journalist’s release (not knowing that he works for a far less prestigious publication than his initial claims to the police force) and recruits him to aid her as she looks into the private lives of those powerful men she suspects of murder. As the two get closer to the truth behind the young woman’s murder, their growing attraction is just as compelling as their investigation.

Adenle’s book takes its name from a Nigerian High Life song, and is just as bright, dynamic and whimsical as its namesake. Adenle conjures such a sense of place, the reader may finish the book and wonder that they haven’t been physically transported to the colorful setting. Inequality is extreme in the city of Lagos, yet high and low rub shoulders more than one might expect in Easy Motion Tourist. Cheerfully corrupt politicians mingle with wily sex workers, hopeless car thieves, and earnest NGO workers for a portrait of a complex city with a fine line between illicit industry and legal.

Bars full of wealthy tourists one moment are flooded by prostitutes fleeing police raids the next; scenes shift between palatial mansions full of imported goods, to working class slums teeming with creative small industries. Some neighborhoods bribe the police force to protect them, while others rally en masse to keep strike forces out (one particularly dramatic arrest sequence takes place in a neighborhood where arrests must be made at night – police are not welcome in the daylight). Upon finishing Easy Motion Tourist, I had the sense that despite Adenle’s timeless mastery of the mystery genre, his plot could only have taken place at the exact time and in the exact place in which he set the novel.

Ritualistic killings mingle with modern motivations for a murder mystery that holds its cards close until its shocking denouement. Casual violence appears throughout the book as a fact of city life, yet Adenle never dismisses the value of lives so casually cut down, drawing attention to the precarious safety of Lagos’ most vulnerable residents. Stylish action sequences and well-choreographed gun battles lend an aura of 70s cinema to the novel, and one would hope this story makes its way on screen sooner rather than later. In an interview with fellow Nigerian writer Jowhor Ile, Adenle picks Tarantino as the ideal filmmaker to turn Easy Motion Tourist into a film, and I have the same hope for this ultraviolent, ultrastylish thriller.

You can find copies of Easy Motion Tourist on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. 

 

 

Molly’s Top Ten International Crime Fiction of 2017 (so far)

  • Post by Director of Suspense Molly Odintz

After this 4th of July, I find myself thinking of other places, far from here – and the fantastic crime novels set there. Below, you’ll find a list of recommended summer reads for the international crime fiction enthusiast. This year, I’ve had a historical theme to my reading, although most of the works listed below are in communication with our modern sensibilities as much as they represent a window into the past. Not much else unifies the selections below, and perhaps that’s part of why I love international crime fiction; it celebrates the diversity of world experience in a way impossible to find in a single nation’s literature. All are great crime novels, and each one should make for perfect summer reading for the armchair traveler. 

1. The Long Drop by Denise Mina9780316380577

Denise Mina’s first historical novel is a better than the words I know to describe it – almost impossibly good. Mina bases her latest on the trial of Peter Manuel, a serial killer in midcentury Glasgow, and splits her narrative between the lurid details of the trial and the pub crawl from hell as Peter Manuel and William Watt, the surviving patriarch of a murdered family, go from bar to bar, sinking deeper into the Glasgow underworld and getting closer to admiting their most private truths to one another. The more we get to know Watt and Manuel, the more sinister the trial of Peter Manuel becomes, heightened in tension by the dramatic irony of what we know and what the jury suspects, but can’t quite allow themselves to contemplate…A knowing, mature and sympathetic portrait of a society defined by violence and proud of it, that we may now judge and find wanting. You can find copies of The Long Drop on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. 

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A Dangerous Game of Espionage: MysteryPeople Q&A with Barry Lancet

  • Interview by MysteryPeople Contributor Scott Butki

Barry Lancet has done it again: he’s written another thriller that crosses from America to Japan to North Korea and China, educating readers about cultural and political issues in the four nations.

The Spy Across the Table is Lancet’s fourth in his series about Jim Brodie, who works as an expert on Japanese art (often selling it to rich Americans) and runs a detective agency in Japan that he inherited from his father. As with the other books in the series there’s plenty of hooks, twist and surprises in addition to a variety of interesting characters.

One of the things I like about Lancet’s series is he has a section in the back of each book called About Authenticity, separating truth from fiction. As a former journalist who likes his fact and fiction kept separate this is a move I’d like to see more writers doing.

As this book starts Brodie has arranged for one of his American friends to meet a Japanese friend of Brodie’s. After their meeting, both are found murdered. Despite his shock, Brodie pursues the killer and others responsible, a chase that will take him across several countries. Meanwhile, the First Lady, a college roommate of one of the victims, enlists Brodie to find the killer.

Lancet was kind enough to be interviewed for his new book. I previously interviewed him here for his prior book, Pacific Burn

Scott Butki: How did you come up with this story for this book?

Barry Lancet: I asked myself what’s keeping me up at night? As an American expat living in Tokyo on the far edge of the Pacific, I didn’t have far to look. The North Koreans were once again rattling their sabers and spouting off about going nuclear, while the Chinese were grabbing new territory, paving over uninhabited atolls to build airstrips. Everyone in Asia was on edge, though the rest of the world paid attention only sporadically. That was 18 months ago. I had no idea that these two countries would soon be grabbing major U.S. headlines as they have of late.

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