On a sweltering Friday afternoon in Durton, best friends Ronnie and Esther leave school together. Esther never makes it home.
Ronnie’s going to find her, she has a plan. Lewis will help. Their friend can’t be gone, Ronnie won’t believe it.
Detective Sergeant Sarah Michaels can believe it. She has seen what people are capable of. She knows more than anyone how, in a moment of weakness, a person can be driven to do something they never thought possible.
Lewis can believe it too. But he can’t reveal what he saw that afternoon at the creek without exposing his own secret.
Five days later, Esther’s buried body is discovered.
Hayley Scrivenor’s debut rural crime novel Dirt Town follows the disappearance of 12-year-old Esther Bianchi, who disappears after school on one blistering hot afternoon. Set in a remote New South Wales town nicknamed Dirt Town, Esther’s disappearance ripples through the small town. This close-knit community that parents once considered safe, suddenly doesn’t seem to be.
There is quite a large cast of characters who pivot through the story. Esther’s friends Ronnie and Lewis, who struggle to understand the events of her disappearance, and Esther’s mother Constance, who gravitates towards her best friend Shelley to help process her grief. We also have Sydney-based detective Sarah Michaels, tasked with solving the crime.
“Sarah found that, in general, people were less leery of unmarried, childless female police officers in her line of work than they were of single men. Even if some of them guessed she might be gay, even if that wasn’t their cup of tea, they were less suspicious of her than they were of Smithy.”
Dirt Town is worthy of its praise, offering a suite of complex and three-dimensional characters and presenting an ending that felt fresh and unique.
Hayley Scrivenor perfectly captures the barren landscape of regional New South Wales, moving POV between all of the characters who circle Esther’s disappearance. Because the book blurb tells us Esther’s body will eventually be found, we know where the story is headed. We know, at the end of the four-day plot, Esther will be discovered and we will be close to uncovering her killer.
“Constance’s eyes moved of their own accord to the tall woman’s choppy haircut. The short hair had been dyed an unnatural, fire engine red and was peppered with auburn and blonde streaks. It was one of those haircuts where, however it turns out, at least you can’t be accused of not making an effort.”
Hayley’s writing is observant and taut. Each point of view not only addresses Esther’s disappearance, allowing the plot to propel forward, but we also learn more about that character’s past – their history in the town, their relations with other characters, and their potential involvement with Esther on the day she disappeared.
Whilst I did find the order of events to be a little confusing – Hayley moves between past and present in quite a staccato, chaotic manner – the characters do anchor the story and keep you turning the pages. Hayley’s writing is poignant, with plenty to offer the reader.
“I’d wanted to tell the detective more about Esther. That her parents worried too much about her, not seeing that she could, in fact, do anything. Of course, I couldn’t have said I sometimes pretended that Esther’s dad was my father when he drove us to and from swimming.”
Atmospheric with a tightly wound crime and a pacey plot, Dirt Town is recommended for readers of rural and outback noir, crime thrillers and small-town mysteries. Readership skews 25+
Thank you to the publisher for mailing me a review copy in exchange for an honest review.
Pan Macmillan Publishers Australia
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