Dirt Town has a simple plot: a girl goes missing, two out-of-town detectives arrive and the father becomes a suspect. Hayley Scrivenor’s debut is billed as a crime novel but the multiple perspectives she employs to elevate
a prosaic storyline into a rich community profile reveal her literary ambitions.
The story begins with the children, a collective narrator known as “We” who recalls the pungent smell of rotting flesh hanging over Durton, otherwise known as Dirt Town, one hot summer week. The source may be a dead lamb or the body of Esther Bianchi, the missing girl. Either way, they conclude the smell heralds an erosion of their cherished freedoms. No one is left innocent once the out-of-towners reveal the web of domestic violence and small-town crime that entwines Durton’s residents. Callously, “We” mourns the loss of their carefully constructed idyllic small-town life more than their missing friend.
Scrivenor purposefully centres the perspectives and experiences of the children and women most affected by Esther’s disappearance, and in doing so softens the impact the detective character has on the narrative. It is Ronnie, Esther’s plucky best friend, who is cast as the heroine determined to solve Esther’s case. The story, however, belongs to Lewis – a boy rejected by his mates for not being blokey enough. He trades in childhood half-truths, never quite understanding what should be said to whom in order to keep the people around him safe. This creates an exquisite tension that erupts when Lewis comes into contact with his father, Clint Kennard. Once a charming cowboy, he is now the personification of Dirt Town cruelty. A brilliant on-foot chase scene anchors the story and is far more chilling than the moment Esther is discovered, which is almost a footnote.
Less magnetic are the chapters dedicated to Sarah, the lead detective. She is given form in opposition to a former girlfriend named Amira – a vivacious Syrian drag king who revels in skewering Aussie blokes. Sarah recounts Amira’s pointed teasing that she is a bisexual who “just has more energy”, while Sarah is a lesbian “who’s always tired”. In these remembered scenes Sarah is othered, and diminished because of it. Only in Lewis’s eyes does she take on a truer form: a woman with a kind voice, quick to smile, who keeps her fingernails “neat and short”. That is to say, a good, unpretentious detective who eventually solves the case and along the way sets free the characters most damaged by Dirt Town’s hidden violence.
Pan Macmillan, 368pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 18, 2022 as "Dirt Town".
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