Living Arts Canberra: Dirt Town interview

I had the pleasure of being interviewed by Barbie Robinson for Living Arts Canberra. Barbie asked such great questions, and wrote a lovely review to boot. Scroll down for the review and to listen to our conversation.

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Macmillan, Australia, 2022
Cover design by Deborah Parry Graphics
Cover photographs Doug Steley B/Alamy Stock photo and iStock

This is a book about concealment – a body, a crime, community and personal secrets and injuries held from the past. While it is a police procedural and its plot stems from the classic crime trope of a missing child, it is, for me, much more an intimate and perceptive portrait of a small town and how its secrets have long trails.

City Detective Sergeant Sarah Michaels and her offsider Detective Constable Wayne Smith are sent in to the small town of Durton to investigate the  disappearance of Esther Bianchi, who simply does not arrive home from school one day. Everything seemed normal when she parted company from her friends Ronnie and Lewis, but as day wears into night a big community search gets underway.

The enormous strength of this novel lies in the author’s highly skilful use of points of view – we see the evolving tale of the missing through the eyes of the investigating team, Esther’s two close friends, Esther’s anguished mother and then the Greek chorus-like ‘We’, the voice of the townsfolk, especially the children. Whist commenting on the action, they also give us information as if omniscient, filling in plot details we need to know to flesh out what has happened here.

It’s so deftly handled that at no time do we lose our place and as the story unfolds we learn more and more about the people of this book. As with many small towns, the various families are often related, everyone is aware of everyone’s history and usually conscious of the whereabouts of the children – and so it is particularly horrific when Esther remains unfound for several days. There is a conscious ‘outsiders’ riff here, again in what remains hidden and is so hard to unearth.

This is work dense in ideas and woven throughout with contemporary issues, especially those we often associate with rural settings (though they are, of course, equally pertinent in urban areas) – drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence and abuse, demeaning attitudes and behaviour towards women, coming to terms with sexual orientation which may be seen as outside of the ‘norm’, post-natal depression, the detrimental mental health effects of isolation.

Hayley Scrivenor is particularly adept at speaking in the children’s voices, at getting under the skin of how it feels to be a child, aware of the world and often afraid to reveal what could be difficult information to share. This very thing is used to great effect as a device in stalling of aspects of the police enquiry, and yet it reads perfectly credibly as child psychology.

Public opinion and judgement are another area for exploration as are the stark contrasts between silence and speaking out. How do we decide in a community what should be let lie? It’s a police issue too because it is often so hard to get straight answers.

I enjoy the author’s clever use of symbolism along with her firm fix on reality. The recurring image of the chained dog as presage of violence is a striking  example.

Hayley Scrivenor is someone who understands small towns, their goodness and their evil and who ably builds this world for us; she’s clear-eyed but not unduly judgemental.

I will not spoil the reader’s pleasure in the twists and intricacies of plot, but suffice it to say that some of the story’s resolutions are deeply satisfying, while others make us wince when we understand the ramifications of their banality – how true to life this is that small decisions can have such dire and lasting consequences!

I join the chorus of praise for this work by eminent voices in the crime fiction universe. It’s fine writing, absorbing story telling and compassionate, astute observation of the human condition – i.e perfect for our crime reading expectations.

Thank you to Macmillan for my review copy and to Hayley for a rich and satisfying book chat.Barbie Robinson

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