Allen & Unwin, Australia, 2021
What a cracker of a crime novel this is, with multiple intricate story lines to follow, a rich assortment of distinctly quirky characters and themes of abuse, power and justice hanging heavily over a vast and dusty landscape. With Treasure and Dirt, Chris Hammer, yet again, proves himself to be a master of his craft.
Sydney Homicide Detective Ivan Lucic is sent up to the remote outback mining town of Finnigans Gap to investigate the murder and crucifixion of opal minor Jonas McGee. A young and apparently up and coming Nell Buchanan from Bourke is appointed as his offsider, her local knowledge, competence and keenness a boon to the Sydneysider.
But just before we plunge into this story, we are pulled back to Hammer’s previous book Trust – Ivan Lucic is only in charge of this job by proxy because his boss Morris Montifore has been ordered to stay in Sydney to face a Professional Standards investigation.
It seems the powers that be, the rich and influential whose powerful positions he has threatened in an earlier case, are not finished with him yet. It’s an inkling of what’s to come – the dominant theme of people with power and money playing havoc with the lives of ordinary people.
The landscape immediately exerts its influence too. It’s hot, it’s dry. There are droves of flies and the all too recognisable signs of boom and bust in the town. As a portrait of a remote regional town, this one resonates – the club, the pub, the café selling darn good hamburgers, the few thriving businesses, the ones that have shut down, the stopping place for grey nomads in their caravans, the lookout over the vastness of the Australian landscape. The town is populated with recognisable types too and there’s an instant clocking of the outsider/insider mentality.
Other intriguing strands are thrown into mix. The murder investigation inevitably uncovers other secrets and oddities, other paths to follow – the accident that caused the family schism for Jonas and his brother in law, the AVO taken out by Jonas’s daughter, the exclusive and clearly dodgy religious sect run by the Seer, an historic death on the salt pan, the ratters and outliers, the mining company’s secretive and violent activities, legal teams brought up from the big smoke to protect the interests of the mining executives and company reputation.
The author doesn’t send us down rabbit holes as such – there’s just a hell of a lot going on and we grapple with it in real time along with the investigative team.
It makes for a thrilling and turbulent ride; there’s a sustained air of threat and secrecy, of old wounds festering in the stinking heat, of sweat and dust and untrustworthiness. The main actors have significant flaws, ones that threaten their capacity to do their job and to work as the team they need to be.
It’s a difficult path for Ivan and Nell, accepting the foibles and secretiveness and self-protectiveness of the other, in order to do what they most want to do – to solve the murder and unravel the bigger mysteries of Finnigans Gap, to somehow stand up for Joe Blow. in the face of overweening power and influence. It’s a tale of two ground level cops who just want to be allowed to do their job.
At 493 pages, Treasure and Dirt is a substantial read. It never feels like a heavy tome though – the pages fly and our minds race as fast as those of Ivan and Nell. It’s thrilling fiction, as noir as it comes, and skilfully crafted. There’s a suggestion that this might be the beginning of a new series. I hope so.
Thank you to Allen & Unwin for my review copy and to Chris Hammer for speaking with me about the work. So much appreciated.