This is Danny Caine, owner of the Raven Book Store in Lawrence, with an HPPR Book Byte. Reading Jane Harper’s thriller The Dry, you’d never know it was her first book. It’s so well-plotted, so full of twists and clues and red herrings, that it feels like the work of a veteran.
Readers are tossed into the whitewater rapids of the story right away: Aaron Falk, a financial crimes investigator in Melbourne, has been summoned back to the small town of his youth for the funeral of his former best friend.
Except it’s more complicated: Falk’s now-dead friend apparently killed his wife and son before killing himself, leaving only his newborn to survive the attack.
Except it gets even more complicated, as Falk is a pariah in the town for reasons that only slowly become clear. Suffice to say, everyone there hates him and blames him for something very bad.
Except it gets even MORE complicated: the only reason he travels back at all is he got a note from his dead friend’s dad: “You lied. Luke lied. Be at the funeral.”
Now, all Falk has to do is go to the funeral, figure out what happened the day Luke apparently killed himself and his family, and get back to Melbourne unscathed. Simple, right?
I’m not spoiling anything; you’ll learn all this in the first ten minutes of reading Harper’s pressure-cooker of a novel. The set-up is a classic, tense and exciting from page one, and The Dry delivers payoff after payoff with sophistication and a flair for the twist.
This is Harper’s first novel; she worked as a journalist for ten years before taking an online writing course and cranking out this new-classic. It’s been optioned by Reese Witherspoon, and a film is currently shooting with Eric Bana as Falk. It’ll make a great movie.
Harper is Australian, and the Australian environment plays a key role in all her books. This is my favorite part of reading them, and something that feels truly unique, at least among the mysteries I’ve come across. It’s one thing for a book to have a vivid setting, but in Harper’s books, Australia is an essential character.
In The Dry, a serious drought shapes the action in completely unforgettable ways, culminating in a heart-racing climax that couldn’t occur in any other place except this particular town in Australia at this particular time. The Dry’s eminently spooky and gothic follow-up Force of Nature sees Falk thrown into the rugged Giralang Ranges, a thick forest perhaps haunted by a serial killer.
On a poorly-run corporate retreat, five women enter the woods. Days later, only four emerge, bruised and shaken, not saying what happened to the fifth. The woman who disappeared is a whistleblower in Falk’s latest corporate fraud case, so again, he enters a hostile environment (both in terms of the people and the fauna) and has to solve his way out. In both books, the natural environment is never not a factor.
Harper’s newest book, The Lost Man, is a standalone murder mystery which takes Harper’s environmental talent to a thrilling extreme. Two brothers meet at the fence line separating their massive cattle ranching operations in the Australian Outback. The third brother lies dead at their feet. Only a few people populate the hundreds of miles in any direction, and they’re almost all related to each other, and alibis are scarce.
In this way, Harper subverts the locked-room mystery simply by putting a locked-room mystery in the biggest room possible. It takes hours to drive anywhere, and you can go all day (or, in one character’s case, entire weeks) without seeing another soul.
Again, Harper has delivered an amped-up page-turning mystery in a uniquely threatening, and uniquely Australian, environment. As climate concerns become a more central part of everyone’s lives, it’s a cathartic thrill to read stories where bad things happen in harsh environments. Don’t ignore Jane Harper because she lives a very long plane ride from Kansas; she’s one of the best mystery writers working today.