Bestselling crime author Chris Hammer says Australian country towns make a great setting for a murder mystery, because everyone’s connected to everybody else.
‘”Everyone knows everyone else and everyone else’s business,” he explains.
“There’s so many reasons why setting is important – everything from world-building to atmosphere, to unsettling the reader, to making the plot work. It can set the whole mood and atmosphere for the story.
“You’re trying to create a world, a different place, so when the reader enters the book they’re leaving their daily life behind and entering a new place.”
The Tilt is set in the world’s largest river red gum forest, the Barmah-Millewa Forest, on the Murray River, at the border of New South Wales and Victoria.
This is the second of Chris Hammer’s books to be based in the Riverina. His debut novel, Scrublands, is set on the Hay plains. Chris got to know the area in 2008 and 2009, while writing a non-fiction book called The River, about what was happening in the Murray-Darling Basin.
“That was at the height of the millennium drought, right at the worst part of it,” Chris explains. In a normal year, the forest turns into a significant wetland for several months of the year.
“But by the time I got there, it hadn’t had any proper water in it for at least a decade and the trees were dying and they were dropping their branches and there were real concerns that the forest may never return to what it was.”
The Tilt is the second book featuring the detective team of Nell Buchanan and Ivan Lucic. Chris intended to write Treasure and Dirt as a standalone, but says the two main characters got ‘under his skin’.
“She’s such a great character, she’s very feisty, she’s strong-willed, she stands her ground. She messes up, she’s emotionally vulnerable. There’s different sides to her character and she’s a great character to write.”
In The Tilt, Nell is a newly promoted homicide detective, who has been handed a cold case after a body is discovered in the forest. The body is soon identified as a soldier from World War II, but as more bodies are discovered and Nell herself is threatened with violence, she questions whether her own family may be implicated.
The Tilt is undoubtedly a more sophisticated work than Chris’ debut thriller Scrublands. With rich historic and environmental detail, an atmospheric setting and a quirky cast of characters, the story cracks along in three timelines – the second world war, the 1970s and the present day.
Chris found it challenging to write the story over three timelines, but he wanted to avoid an information dump at the end of the book by showing more of the backstory unfolding throughout the novel.
“You have a crime that’s committed in the present day – someone’s been murdered – but it’s the last link in a long chain of events that might have started years or even decades ago,” he explains.
“I’m really happy with the way the book has turned out, but it’s quite tricky to keep the three timelines going,” Chris explains. “You can’t have one storyline getting too far ahead of the others.
“There was a lot of rewriting. I think I wrote about twelve drafts. It was a labour of love. I’m so happy it turned out OK.”
All three timelines have the same setting, in and around the forest, but the forest itself is different in each time.
“The forest in the World War II story is a drought forest, fire-prone. It’s very industrious. It’s full of people working, fishers and loggers and sleeper cutters, the charcoal engines, prisoners-of-war and all the rest.
“The seventies forest is more in equilibrium and the present-day forest is flooding. It’s a national park, but it’s full of twitchers and preppers and cookers.
“So it ended up being a very good location, for all of those reasons.”
After releasing his last two books during COVID-19 lockdowns, Chris is enjoying meeting readers again.
“It’s been brilliant this year. It’s fantastic to get out and get a really good reception from people, particularly in regional areas. They’re grateful when authors come to their towns. I’m enjoying it very much.”
Chris Hammer is appearing at Queanbeyan Library, NSW on Thursday 8 December at 6 pm.
Original Article published by Katrina Roe on Region Riverina.