Genre fiction is too often criticized for producing generic, cookie-cutter works that fail to stretch the boundaries of what can be accomplished via the written word. But if one has any doubt about the vitality of modern crime fiction, a simple look at recent and up-coming publications will quickly dispel that factual error. Take for example, Hayley Scrivenor’s debut novel Dirt Town – a work that both acknowledges and circumvents existing tropes, utilizes its unusual setting in fresh and authentic ways, and populates the narrative with an unforgettable cast of characters bursting with diversity, insight, and fallibility. That Hayley Scrivenor then executes all of that while employing a lush and beautiful use of language is a testament to her talent and hints that this may just be the start of a long and successful career.
Durton – aka Dirt Town – is a small town in rural Australia where the citizens are so connected and close-knit that the concept of secrets is almost impossible for them to comprehend. But when twelve-year-old Esther Bianchi goes missing, this town’s faux façade is shredded to smithereens. The truth of those “behind your back” conversations is exposed, and accusations turn from their previous whispers and veiled insinuations to outright cries for justice – most especially after Esther’s body is found.
Dirt Town is told from the perspective of five different points of view. The first four are not unlike those readers will find in most crime novels – that is, individuals who play some part in the unfolding action. In the case of Dirt Town these folks are: Veronica “Ronnie” Thompson, Esther’s best friend; Constance Bianchi, Esther’s mother; Lewis Kennard, a boy at Esther’s school; and Detective Sergeant Sarah Michaels, an outsider sent in to investigate Esther’s disappearance.
It is with the fifth POV where Hayley Scrivenor presents her literary pièce de résistance. These chapters – labeled as “We” – are narrated from the collective points of view of the town’s children. Sort of like the Greek chorus of ancient theater, they do not play an active role in the book’s story, but they provide valuable insight into the effect this investigation has on the citizens of Dirt Town. They reoccur repeatedly throughout the novel, interrupting the forward momentum of the plot in order to reflect upon things from the mindset of the children on the periphery of the action. This unusual technique helps to widen the canvas of the narrative without the need to introduce a whole host of specific additional characters.
When the secrets of the town are revealed, readers will watch as a portrait of rural life blossoms before their eyes. None of the topics Hayley Scrivenor is documenting are unexpected or groundbreaking – infidelity, disability, drugs, sexuality, addiction, and abuse – but the way that she incorporates them and defies stereotypes lends a freshness to the final product that cannot be overstated.
As a first novel, Dirt Town is a shining achievement and will leave readers around the world anxious to see what Hayley Scrivenor will tackle next.
NOTE: For some unknowable marketing reason, Dirt Town will be re-titled Dirt Creek when it is published in the United States later this year.
Disclaimer: A e-galley of this title was provided to BOLO Books by the publisher(s). No promotion was promised and the above is an unbiased review of the novel.