books

We’re calling it: Dirt Town is one of the most masterful Australian crime books of the year.

Pan Macmillan Australia
Thanks to our brand partner, Pan Macmillan Australia

I have a theory that our love of the crime genre reveals a lot about us. 

Of course, there are the obvious things.

It tells us we love figuring things out, moving the puzzle pieces around dozens of times in order to make them fit into a picture that makes sense to us.

There’s also something in us that loves the ‘uh-huh’ moment – where all the pondering and thinking out loud pays off because either we get it right (and get to live our Harriet the Spy moment), or that we simply didn’t see it coming which means we get to experience something truly magical: an author so skillful that they actually catch us off guard.

But I think for the most part, our love of the genre stems from the fact that crime challenges us in a way that a lot of other genres don’t. They’re often so brutal and raw that they make us vulnerable in a way that’s almost uncomfortable, but entirely necessary.

Why? Because it’s in that uncomfortable space that we begin to better understand who we are as humans – our strengths, our weaknesses, and most importantly, what makes life meaningful.

Considering that, I know that my own criteria of what I deem to be a ‘good’ crime book is a little… selective. Not only does it have to intrigue me the way any book should, it needs to say something bigger about who we are.

So, with that in mind, you have to understand that what I’m about to say is not something I ever say lightly.

Dirt Town by Hayley Scrivenor has got to be one of the best Australian crime books you’ll read this year.

Image: Supplied. 

At its centre is Durton, a small rural town, completely rocked by the disappearance of 12-year-old Esther. Five days later, her body is discovered.

ADVERTISEMENT

In between, Hayley Scrivenor masterfully crafts a compelling and heart-wrenching story about a community both falling apart and coming together in the wake of the tragedy. 

What results is no small feat. In her debut release, Hayley Scrivenor is able to capture an intimate portrait of the community in all its complexities. 

Each chapter alternates between five characters, each with their own distinct voice. It’s through this experimentation of voice and perspective that you start to realise that this book is truly something special.

The shifting points of view not only serve to push the plot (and mystery) forward, but it also helps highlight the fragility of the town’s relationships, and how easily they are both strengthened and destroyed.

And as the mystery begins to unfold, Sarah, the detective assigned to the case, realises this as she ponders that “the knowledge would make her feel the crushing weight of what it was like to live in a small town. Everything and everyone touching everything else.”

Jane Harper – yes, *the* Jane Harper from The Dry critical acclaim – says that “Hayley Scrivenor’s remarkable sense of place brings Dirt Town to life,” which perfectly encompasses the novel’s ability to stand on its own in such a big (and sometimes over-saturated) genre. 

As the perspectives continue to shift back and forth throughout the novel, you start to discover that Durton is not just the setting of the tragedy, it almost becomes a character in itself. Not only through its occupants, but through the vividness of the descriptions. 

The novel’s exploration of grief is particularly powerful, especially through the eyes of Esther’s friends, Ronnie and Lewis. Ronnie’s naivety and innocence makes Esther’s disappearance all the more raw and gut-wrenching, because as a reader, you know that this is the moment where her understanding of the world ultimately shifts as she comes to terms with a new world without her friend. 

ADVERTISEMENT

Lewis’ voice offers a different perspective. His troubling relationship with his father means he sees the world in a very different way to Ronnie, which helps reiterate what Hayley Scrivenor insightfully captures – how easily our experiences define us, and how these experiences are often the result of pure chance. 

Their two perspectives help create an emotional depth to the novel amongst the adult perspectives that we get throughout the book.

Image: Supplied. 

You’ll quickly find yourself unable to put it down – it’s that good. 

And yes, like every crime buff, you’ll try to piece together everything as you go along, trying desperately to guess what happened to Esther, but very quickly, you’ll become so invested in the community and the intertwining dynamics that your favourite part of the experience won’t be the guessing game. 

It’ll be the subtlety of Hayley Scrivenor’s writing as she makes you care deeply about these characters.

Yes, I promise you it’ll serve you up everything you want in a crime novel. But it’ll give you much more than that. It’ll become that book you measure every other book against as it catapults you towards a truly heart-breaking ending. 

Dirt Town by Hayley Scrivenor (RRP $32.99) is published by Pan Macmillan, and now available in all good bookstores.

Feature Image: Pan Macmillan Australia/Mamamia. 

Pan Macmillan Australia
'Dirt Town' is available in all good bookstores and online. Click Here