Chris Hammer’s Scrublands – now a must-watch crime drama

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Back in 2019, we were infatuated with Australian author Chris Hammer’s novel, Scrublands. Set in a drought-shrivelled town in New South Wales, this brutal whydunnit has been made into a four-part crime drama which begins airing Thursday 16 November in Australia via Stan. At 9pm on Saturday 18 November, it will be Hammer time in the UK as the first two episodes are broadcast on BBC Four.

Episode one opens true to the book. Riversend’s berobed Catholic priest Father Byron Swift (Jay Ryan) walks out of his church and guns down five men with a hunting rifle before being shot dead himself. The explanation seems simple enough – he’d been accused of paedophilia and preferred this fate to a trial and humiliation for his order.

A year on, investigative journalist Martin Scarsden (Luke Arnold) of the Sydney Morning Herald arrives in Riversend to write a colour piece about the town and how it is coping with the tragedy… or not, as the case may be. Soon he is questioning the accepted story behind Swift’s killing spree and prying into secrets that some in the town would prefer remained buried with the victims.

Is he a media hound reopening old wounds for a story to revive his career, or will Scarsden’s pursuit of the truth provide the forsaken community an opportunity for catharsis?

This is one troubled priest.

Bella Heathcote plays Mandy Bond, a woman who has returned to Riversend to care for her ailing mother. Having been an outsider who has returned, she has her own insights on the town and, running the local cafe, befriends Scarsden. Perhaps there will be more to their relationship, but there might not be time for romance – soon more murder victims are discovered and it looks like Scarsden himself will be in the firing line.

In the show, there are parallels between Riversend’s horrific violence and dark secrets; the droughts and bush fires that have ensued; and the psychological challenges its close-knit community faces. Perhaps turning in on itself is a natural response, but if Riversend doesn’t turn the page and accept the truth, the town could well implode.

Scarsden and Bond strike up a friendship.

Arid and saturated in baking hot sunlight, Riversend’s vistas are nonetheless beautiful and the cinematographers behind Scrublands contrast this beauty with the dark human content of the story. The way nature encroaches seems like a punishment. Part of the series was filmed in Maldon, in the countryside north of Melbourne. Last year, a nearby caravan park was flooded in two metres of water. The damaged and deserted location is used in the show to help depict the fictional town’s road to ruin.

Directed by Greg McLean, Scrublands consists of four 50-minute episodes. Scrublands was a debut novel for Chris Hammer – it’s a must-read book and this must-watch television for crime fiction lovers. Click here for more Australian crime fiction.

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