Chris Hammer – The Seven

Allen & Unwin, Australia, 2023
Cover design Luke Causby/Blue Cork
Cover photos Alamy

The Seven is a slow burn, a novel that might be described in the jargon as ‘sweeping’, with its historical time crimes and that of the modern day held together by ties of lineage, power, privilege, land and water.

The ruling theme of dispossession permeates the three story lines – that of the original (Aboriginal) custodians of the land, of the female children of the landed gentry and of individuals who chose to buck the system.

Set in the fictional irrigation town of Yuwonderie, the story floats from the present to 1913 and the World War 1 years to 1993. The Dubbo-based homicide Detective Sergeant Ivan Lucic and Detective Constable Nell Buchanan, whom we have come to know and appreciate from the author’s last novel The Tilt, return to investigate the murder of local accountant Athol Hasluck.

The rest of Lucic’s team will join soon thereafter as the case and others that follow quickly indicate higher levels of complication than a rural crime might have suggested and along with it, potential for political fall-out.

For this is not only the heart of irrigation country, it is a town controlled in every way by seven wealthy landowning families with roots back to the beginnings of European settlement in the district.

Whilst seven wealthy landowners were the movers for the irrigation scheme and the town’s powerbrokers, in the 1993 timeline we follow the interactions of the heirs apparent and their partners (a shifting landscape)-  the increasingly aggressive Craven, the alpha male Otto and Davis, a chap of an entirely different nature who has been away to university and who interests himself in history.

Not only that he questions whether he wants to slide into the role of landed gentry via the accepted path of the eldest son inheriting the farm.

In the present day Ivan is finding the town a little too perfect – it feels Truman Show-esque. Otto has become the local MP. Davis is in a grave on the edges of the family property having gone missing back in the nineties along with his girlfriend, Stella, daughter of the then town cop,  Bert Kippax.

With his usual narrative flair and masterly control of plot, Chris Hammer seamlessly brings these elements together in a crime story that encompasses complex social dilemmas and moral questions. The story goes well beyond the solving of murder mysteries and the uncovering of corrupt behaviour. It is grand in its scale, drawing clear lines of intersection between the bigger notion of colonial dispossession and that of family succession.

The immoderate exercise of power is seen both in the political sphere and the personal. The contrast between old and new thinking, between educated choice and accepted repetitive behaviour invites us to speculate well outside this fiction.

Water politics and our European ideas about land ownership loom large in our contemporary public discourse. That they engender extreme passions and violent actions in fiction is entirely credible. It could be said (and has) that violence is part of our national identity, a past we have yet to grapple with.

The private demons of Hammer’s book people, heroes and villains, mirror these greater questions of morality and decision. Failure and weakness are part of the struggle. We simply don’t always get things right.

Chris Hammer invites us to consider all this and this is what makes his writing so thoroughly satisfying. With this consummate storyteller, in fiction at least, we do find resolution and a measure of justice.

Thank you to Allen & Unwin for my review copy.