26 September 2023

The Tilt

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Reviewed by Robert Goodman.

By Chris Hammer, Allen and Unwin, $32.99.

Chris Hammer’s first book was The River, a work of non-fiction exploring the Murray-Darling basin. Hammer brings that knowledge into his latest rural crime novel The Tilt, set on the river border between New South Wales and Victoria and steeped in the region’s 20th Century history. The book also brings back characters from his previous book, Treasure and Dirt, into a structure that can easily see them continue as regulars.

Following her successes in Treasure and Dirt, Nell Buchanan has been made a homicide detective and has been attached to a new rural crime flying squad headed up by her colleague Ivan Lukic. While Lukic sees this as demotion, for Buchanan it is a big step up. Their first case takes Nell back to her family’s home town of Tulong, on the Murray river border between NSW and Victoria, and deep into the past. The sabotage of a regulator, a structure that prevents the river flowing back into the redgum forest, has revealed a skeleton with a bullet hole in its skull. When it turns out the skeleton dates back to World War 2 it seems the case will be quickly closed but then another body is found. And there is still the lingering question of a person who went missing just before the skeletons started to turn up.

The Tilt works in three time frames – World War Two, when the area hosted a Prisoner of War camp for Italians when Nell’s grandparents were young, the early 1970s, when Nell’s parents were teenagers, and the present day. Hammer weaves these stories in around each other to build a picture of the town and its relationships and to slowly reveal the secrets behind the two bodies. Nell, as well as being the chief investigator, soon finds herself in the middle of all of these stories through her complicated family. As always there is a map at the beginning of the book to help readers navigate around the area. There is also a family tree at the end of the book which helps put everything together but this should actually be avoided if possible as it will provide plenty of spoilers for various revelations that come out as the stories converge.

Hammer has already shown his ability to capture various aspects of the Australian landscape from the opal fields to the Northern NSW Coast. In The Tilt he demonstrates a deep understanding of the Murray River, its landscape, and its relationship to the very real Barmah-Millewa river redgum forest, the largest forest of its type in the world. And through his narrative, he draws in key elements of the history of the area.

Hammer’s fictional career started closer to this part of the country with his debut Scrublands – a book set in small town in the depth of a drought. In The Tilt, Hammer demonstrates his continuing growth as an Australian crime writer – with a strong central lead, engaging supporting characters, a great sense of place and well-paced plot.

Over 850 more book reviews can be found on Pile by the Bed.

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