Source: Review copy
Publication: 5TH January 2023 from Wildfire
Newly-minted homicide detective Nell Buchanan returns to her hometown, annoyed at being assigned a decades-old murder – a ‘file and forget’.
But this is no ordinary cold case, her arrival provoking an unwelcome and threatening response from the small-town community. As more bodies are discovered, and she begins to question how well she truly knows those closest to her, Nell realises that finding the truth could prove more difficult – and dangerous – than she’d ever expected.
The nearer Nell comes to uncovering the secrets of the past, the more treacherous her path becomes. Can she survive to root out the truth, and what price will she have to pay for it?
Dead Man’s Creek is the second book to feature Narelle (Nell) Buchanan and Ivan Lucic, following on from Opal Country, but can easily be read as a stand-alone. Nell takes front and centre stage in this story which turns very personal for her.
Newly promoted to Detective, Nell is miffed when her first assignment turns out to be a historic case in the backwater of New South Wales in what used to be her home. It feels to her like she is being palmed off with an easy case for a rookie detective and she’s not happy.
Environmental activists have been active in the area and after one has blown up a regulator on the Murray River, deep in a foresting area, skeletal remains are discovered. The remains are more than 80 years old and so Lucic lets Nell get on with it. Nell is hardly started on the identification of the skeletal remains when a second body is discovered; and intriguingly this one is also old, just not as old as the first one…
Dead Man’s Creek spans more than half a century, with much of this story harking back to two distinct time periods; World War 11 and the 1970’s and Nell will have to mine her family’s knowledge in order to see how the threads of the past connect through to the present.
I love the epic sweep of this book and the way in which he uses the geography of the area to create a magnificent backdrop to his murder mysteries. This story is set along the Murray River and we learn about the impact of Worlds War 11 on the area and how Italian POWs were treated after being shipped in from to work at a prison camp. Hammer beautifully explores the impact of the war on those left at home, as well as on these POWs.
Chris Hammer takes us back in time and traces the history of a number of people who will turn out to be important to Nell and her family history. You get a sense of the vastness of the terrain and yet also the feel of a small town where everyone knows everyone else, the past is alive for most of them and secrets are kept close.
We hear about Tessa’s 70’s romance with the attractive young would be journalist, Tycho and the time they spent with great music on tape and the scent of young love in the air. But Tess’s life takes a turn for the worse when Tycho goes missing. Then there’s 90 year old Jimmy Waters with a story to tell. He grew up a bush cattle herder after his dad was sent to New Guinea in the Second World War.
But this novel is not all historical, though the root of these puzzles lies in the past; Dead Man’s Creek is also a compelling story of political terrorism today.
Nell has to gather all of these fragments of different information from across the decades, at the same time as she sees the information she is uncovering impacting on her family. How she manages to reconcile this with her role as a homicide detective is such a delicate balance and she proves she has the mettle to navigate this delicate territory as well as the courage to face armed and brutal gangsters.
Verdict: Chris Hammer’s novel is a beautifully layered, wonderfully described novel where the picture builds like a three dimensional jigsaw puzzle. The plotting is exceptional. He has a great knack for surprising you with things that seemed unimportant but suddenly come into focus as other pieces of information slot into place. His sense of place is remarkable and his characters authentic. I loved it.
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Chris Hammer was a journalist for more than thirty years, dividing his career between covering Australian federal politics and international affairs. For many years he was a roving foreign correspondent for SBS TV’s flagship current affairs program Dateline. He has reported from more than thirty countries on six continents. Chris’s non-fiction book, The River, published in 2010 to critical acclaim, was the recipient of the ACT Book of the Year Award and was shortlisted for the Walkley Book Award. Scrublands, his first novel, was published in 2018 and won the CWA John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger Award, as well as being shortlisted for Best Debut Fiction at the Indie Book Awards, and Best General Fiction at the ABIA Awards. It has also been longlisted for the Ned Kelly Best Crime Novel of the Year. Scrublands was optioned for television by Easy Tiger (a FremantleMedia company). Chris has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Charles Sturt University and a master’s degree in international relations from the Australian National University. He lives in Canberra with his wife, Dr Tomoko Akami. The couple have two children.