After receiving a letter from his childhood friend's father, Aaron Falk, a Melbourne police officer specializing in financial fraud, drives five hours north to the drought-stricken town of Kiewarra for the funeral of that friend Luke who has allegedly murdered his wife and son and then killed himself.
The unraveling of this murder/suicide mystery, after Luke's father asks Falk to stay and investigate his concerns, takes place over the ensuing days as Falk and Raco, the new local police officer, unofficially investigate the crime. It is clear Falk feels very uncomfortable being back in his home town and is reluctant to stay any length of time.
Falk is an interesting choice of protagonist because his past, which he'd thought was well behind him, flashes back when he comes across various local characters and places that remind him of another tragedy his and Luke's mutual friend Ellie Deacon, a teenager who died mysteriously, shortly before Falk and his father were run out of town. And now, while mourning Luke's death, it is coming back to haunt him:
The funeral was starting. Gerry inclined his head in a tiny nod, and Falk unconsciously put his hand in his pocket. He felt the letter that had landed on his desk two days ago. From Gerry Hadler, eight words written with a heavy hand:
Luke lied. You lied. Be at the funeral.
He thought about the dark-eyed girl, and a lie forged and agreed on twenty years ago as fear and hormones pounded through his veins.
Luke lied. You lied.
The Dry is a well-crafted debut and Jane Harper, while delivering the necessary twists and turns that make a good crime novel, also captures the tension created by the climatic and economic conditions of the area. Set in southeastern Australia, Harper paints a region in the grip of The Big Dry (See Beyond the Book), the most severe drought in living memory, which not only places a financial strain on farmers and local people's livelihoods, it's making people turn their guns on themselves.
The flashback scenes are displayed in italics, making an easy transition and distinction between the thoughts and events of the present and those of the past; between the mysterious deaths that have recently happened, and that remembered dreadful tragedy of the past. Harper explores, not only the economic effect of a community wedded to the land and dependent on water, but the social dysfunctions that endure and transmute when people stay in one place for too long; when a childhood bully turns into a gun-toting, grumpy old man and continues to menace those he hates; how people who might otherwise shine learn to dim their light; how witnesses know for their own good to keep their eyes down and their mouths shut.
The fictional town of Kiewarra contains a mix of traits plucked from the imagination and from rural communities Harper visited while working as a journalist. Its idiosyncrasies are exaggerated perhaps, though understandable in constructing the range of possible suspects, as nearly everyone has their secrets to bear, and any potential second-guessing by the reader is made all the more challenging knowing Falk has pre-conceived perceptions and an unclear past history with many of them. It highlights the often unbridgeable differences between locals and outsiders and why people might choose to come and live in such places, even if only temporarily.
With more than one mystery being unraveled simultaneously, The Dry keeps up a brisk pace, is full of surprises, and has the right balance of tension without overindulging in the brutal, tense-suspense formula of many potboilers today.
The Dry is a story that carries the reader to the arid, drought suffering region of Australia in a way that reminded me of Douglas Kennedy's thrilling debut novel set in the lesser known, slightly terrifying, remote and usually uninhabited Australian Outback, The Dead Heart. Jane Harper is already at work on her next crime and mystery novel which will also feature Aaron Falk. We are told it takes place in a different setting and can be read as a stand-alone rather than a direct sequel.
This review is from the February 1, 2017 issue of BookBrowse Recommends. Click here to go to this issue.
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