If only more crime fiction novels were as good as The Dry, the debut offering from Australian author Jane Harper.
The plot follows police detective Aaron Falk who has returned to his hometown to attend the funeral of childhood friend Luke Hadler. Luke’s body was found in a remote farmhouse along with those of his wife and son, triggering speculation he’d killed his family and then turned the gun on himself. Luke’s parents are not convinced and appeal to Falk to discover the truth about their son’s death.
Falk is reluctant to get involved. He’s a financial crimes investigator not a trained murder detective for one thing. But more significantly, he believes he’s still persona non grata in the town of Kiawarra because of a tragedy twenty years earlier when his girlfriend Ellie was killed. It was Luke Hadler who saved him from prosecution, adamantly telling police that Falk was with him at the time of Ellie’s death. Yet suspicions lingered, making it impossible for Falk and his father to remain in the community.
Jane Harper cleverly juggles two mysteries. In one storyline, the question is whether Luke Hadler was a killer or was he the victim of the loan sharks he’d been forced to turn to when his farm began failing. In parallel, there is the issue of Falk’s past and whether he had any involvement in his girlfriend’s death.
The structure of The Dry forces readers to constantly re-assess the situation. Flashbacks provide a drip feed of new information that provides a different perspective on what really happened in Kiawarra. We’re also pushed to constantly reassess our opinions of Hadler as well as Falk. The latter is a police officer but that doesn’t necessarily make him trustworthy, particularly when his own reputation is at stake.
Add in some well-drawn characters (both major and minor) and the result is a highly readable and enjoyable yarn that would give many an established crime writer a run for their money.
The drought had left the flies spoiled for choice that summer. They sought out unblinking eyes and sticky wounds as the farmers of Kiewarra leveled their rifles at skinny livestock… The finds that day were unusual, though. Smaller and with a smoothness to the flesh. Not that it mattered. They were the same where it counted. The glassy eyes. The wet wounds.
What made The Dry stand out was Harper’s portrayal of a small town community struggling with more than its fair share of economic and social problems.
When the book opens, Kiawarra is contending with the worst drought to ravage Australia in a century. After two years without rain, there’s a feeling of desperation in this small community. Farmers are fighting a losing battle to keep crops and livestock alive; local businesses are struggling to keep afloat and every day brings a risk of a wildfire that could destroy homes and lives.
Nerves are already stretched to breaking point before Falk’s arrival. His presence generates greater anxiety and, the threat of violence, stirred up Ellie’s brute of a father Mal Deacon and his loud-mouthed nephew Grant Dow. They deeply resent Falk because they believe he got away with murder and it’s time he paid the price.
The Dry progresses rapidly with a constant stream of new facts and clues frequent changes of focus. Yet the narrative never feels rushed; Harper allows plenty of time for her characters to develop and the atmosphere of the community to take hold. I know we’re going to encounter her main character of Aaron Falk in later novels and I’m hoping they’ll offer just as strong a sense of their location as this first book.
It’s an impressive debut all round, one of the strongest crime fiction novels I’ve read in recent years.