Book Review: 'Dirt Creek,' by Hayley Scrivenor, a Compelling, Character-Driven Mystery

by Christopher Verleger

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday August 23, 2022

Book Review: 'Dirt Creek,' by Hayley Scrivenor, a Compelling, Character-Driven Mystery

A small town implodes when a twelve-year-old girl disappears one Friday afternoon on her way home from school in "Dirt Creek," the highly impressive debut mystery novel from author Hayley Scrivenor.

The rural Australian town of Durton is home to feisty youngster Esther, her best friend Ronnie, and their sidekick, Lewis. Esther and Ronnie leave school together like any other day, but Esther never makes it home. Detective Sergeant Sarah Michaels, still reeling from a recent breakup, arrives from Melbourne to investigate. Like any small town, everyone knows everybody in Durton. Everyone also seems to be hiding something, and Sarah is determined to find out what lurks beneath the surface of the town, which is better known as Dirt Creek.

Over the course of five days, the events surrounding Esther's disappearance are recounted by different voices in alternating chapters. Best friend, Ronnie, can't imagine life without Esther and believes it is her responsibility to find her. Esther's mother, Constance, tries to remain hopeful without any help from her ornery husband, Steven. Lewis, Esther and Ronnie's blundering companion, knows more about Esther's disappearance than he is willing to reveal. All the while, Sarah tries to piece together the unsavory assortment of facts she gathers from the residents of Durton that she presumes will lead her to Esther.

Although Durton could stand in for any small town, Scrivenor's writing eerily and distinctly conveys its detached, desolate atmosphere, complete with oppressive heat, dirt roads and narrow minds. Esther's body is found in the opening chapter, which sets a melancholy tone for whatever may follow. The murder mystery alone is captivating, but the multiple narrators and points of view make for a gritty, intense, character-driven novel. The details of Esther's disappearance and discovery unravel at a markedly slow pace, but the buildup creates palpable tension that keeps the pages turning rapidly.

Surprisingly, young, impressionable Ronnie provides the voice of reason and is arguably the most likeable character. The town paints a poor picture of men, particularly their treatment of women, and the author uses a Greek chorus (a term I wasn't familiar with previously) to reflect the collective thoughts of the other children in Dirt Creek — a method that doesn't really work. Furthermore, Sarah's broken relationship might provide a better understanding of her mindset, but any mention of her ex-mate feels superfluous.

Despite its few flaws, "Dirt Creek" is an outstanding debut. The author's indicative prose leaves the reader with an intimate, elaborate profile of the locale, while simultaneously maintaining its secrecy.

"Dirt Creek" is available now from Flatiron Books.

Chris is a voracious reader and unapologetic theater geek from Narragansett, Rhode Island.