Chris Hammer – winner of the 2019 CWA John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger
After thirty years in journalism and some award winning non-fiction books under his belt, Chris Hammer turned to crime writing and immediately caused a sensation with his evocative and compelling debut novel, Scrublands which has just won the John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger.
Having spent years travelling Australia and the wider world during his career, there was no one better to ask about the essence of this country and how it seeps into the pores of the nation’s crime writers.
Chris, did you always have a desire to write fiction or was there a sudden moment of inspiration?
I always had a hankering to write fiction. I attempted to write a novel in my twenties, and then revisited it briefly in my early thirties. The result was embarrassingly bad, and so I wisely abandoned it. May it never see the light of day!
In my forties, I wrote my first two published books. They were narrative non-fiction; travel writing exploring environmental issues, together with history, culture, politics and indigenous issues. I discovered I really loved the process of writing; I was hooked. Then, when my job saw me more involved in management and video production, I found myself missing writing, so I started a new novel in my spare time, a crime novel that eventually became Scrublands.
You now live in Canberra, but your extraordinary novel, Scrublands is set in a dry, isolated town; what made you choose this setting for the novel.
The most obvious reason is that I had visited towns like that as I was researching my non-fiction book The River. I travelled throughout the Murray-Darling Basin, Australia’s largest river system, at the height of the worst drought since European settlement. I stayed in irrigation towns where their rivers had run dry. The setting was so powerful it stayed with me. But it was also perfect for a crime novel, because drought and isolation make for a) an evocative atmosphere and b) helps explain the motivation of some of the characters: desperate people do desperate things.
The size of Australia compared to the size of the population must create a real distinction between urban and rural culture? Are there common characteristics of Australian identity that unite people.
Australia is peculiar; it is both more diverse and more homogeneous than you might expect. Despite the huge distances, regional differences aren’t as obvious as they are in Britain. For example, there are almost no regional accents; the country was settled too recently and Australians have always been quite mobile and itinerant. Now the advent of the internet and penetration of big city media means regional Australia is more connected than ever.
I’d like to think the characteristic that most defines Australians is tolerance: people are generally happy to live and let live, although you wouldn’t know it from our current government.
The global success of Scrublands has put Australian crime writing firmly in the spotlight. Are there common themes that set Australian fiction apart in the crime genre?
That’s a really hard question to answer, because all Australian writers are different.
Possibly one uniting characteristic of a lot of contemporary Australian crime fiction is that authors make few if any concessions to international readers. I feel this is because most of us, in writing our first books, were simply hoping to get them published in Australia, and never imagined that they may be of interest to international publishers and readers. I think this gives many Australian books a rawness and authenticity.
Who are the leading authors and are there any up and coming writers we should look out for?
Okay, here’s a top ten, but this is a very subjective list, as I haven’t read everyone!!
The godfather of Australian crime:
- Peter Corris. Any list of modern Australian crime writers must start with Peter, who wrote some 44 books featuring hard-nosed P.I. Cliff Hardy and about 20 other novels. Hardy is hard-drinking, hard-fisted ladies’ man, an Australian larrikin. The stories are set in Sydney, often dealing with corruption and organised crime. Corris demonstrated two important things: 1) Australians would read Australian crime and b) it was actually possible to make a living writing in this genre.
The big three:
- Peter Temple. Originally from South Africa, Temple captured the language and characteristics of Australians like few before or since. His Jack Irish books, set in inner-city Melbourne and flavoured with Australian rules football and horse racing, are at times dramatic, at other times wryly humorous. Temple won the CWA Gold Dagger in 2007 for Broken Shore, but more significantly his final book Truth, won Australia’s most prestigious literary award, The Miles Franklin Award, in 2010.
- Michael Robotham is another Australian to have won a CWA Gold Dagger (in 2015 for his novel Life and Death). Although he lives in Australia, he spent many years living in the UK and his Joe O’Loughlin series is set there. A wonderful writer with nuanced plots and characters.
- Jane Harper. Her first novel, The Dry, was only published in 2016, yet Jane has probably done more to popularise Australian crime than any other author. The Dry was a massive international hit, winning a CWA Gold Dagger among other accolades. I highly recommend her third book The Lost Man.
- Garry Disher was an early exponent of ‘bush noir’. He has twice won Australia’s top crime fiction award, The Ned Kelly, for best novel and has also been a dual winner of the Deutcher Krimi Preis, International. Now aged 70, Garry has written some 25 novels and is showing no signs of slowing down.
- Christian White’s first two books, The Nowhere Child (2018) and The Wife and The Widow (2019) have been huge best sellers in Australia.
- These books don’t have a traditional protagonist; instead they are taut psychological thrillers with unpredictable twists. Keep an eye out for him – Christian is destined to become a major star.
- Candice Fox is a young Australian author whose books Hades (2014) and Eden (2015) won the Ned Kelly Awards for best debut crime and best crime respectively. As well as her own prize-winning books (there are seven so far), she regularly collaborates with James Patterson, guaranteeing huge exposure and a place amid New York Times Bestsellers.
- Dervla McTiernan only migrated to Australia from Ireland in 2011, but we’re so glad she did. Her books The Ruin (2018) and the Scholar (2019) have been hugely successful, and the third Cormac Reilly book, The Good Turn, is scheduled for 2020. The books are set in Galway, Ireland, so are not immediately recognizable as Australian, but they’re amongst the finest police procedurals you will find anywhere.
- Mark Brandi. Mark’s career was launched when he won the CWA Debut Dagger in 2016 for an unpublished manuscript (later published in Australia as Wimmera and in the UK as Into the River). Mark’s books are more literary than your typical cookie-cutter crime novels and lack a traditional protagonist. Instead they explore character and morality. Wimmera is again set in rural Australia, but The Rip is about as inner-city grunge as you can get.
This list if just the beginning. Other emerging talents, all published to acclaim in the past few years, include Emma Viskic, Sarah Bailey, Jack Heath, Sulari Gentill, Ben Hobson, J.P. Pomare, and Dave Warner – and so the list goes on. I have a feeling Australian crime, in all its facets, is going to continue to impress.
Chris Hammer’s award winning novel Scrublands is available now.
Chris’s second novel, Silver, also featuring Martin Scarsden is out in the UK on 9th of January.