The Dry, by Jane Harper
Pan Macmillan (2016), Paperback, 352 pages
This is a seriously good piece of writing from a debut author. Jane Harper takes a very familiar trope – the small town with dark secrets – and makes of it a punchy, raw journey into the dark heart of a a small Australian town suffering under a prolonged drought and a brutal crime. The protagonist in this drama is Aaron Falk, an officer with the Australian Federal Police, who returns to the small town of Kiewarra where he grew up, to attend the funeral of his best friend Luke Hadler, who has apparently murdered his wife and son and then killed himself. Falk has unhappy memories of Kiewarra and plans to depart as soon as the funeral is over, but is waylaid by Luke’s parents, who want him to prove Luke did not commit the crime, and use their knowledge of a lie told by himself and Luke to escape suspicion in the mysterious drowning of one their friends 20 years earlier to blackmail him into doing so. Aaron reluctantly agrees to stay, and strikes up a working relationship with a young policeman as they explore Kiewarra’s darker secrets as the real story of two crimes decades apart start to emerge. However, Aaron finds that the town that drove him out because of the drowning, has neither forgotten nor forgiven him. The real appeal of this book is not in the story, which is by no means startlingly original, but in the way it’s told. Harper captures the oppressiveness of the hot dry landscape perfectly, mirroring the simmering tension in the inhabitants of the town. Everyone is under pressure, and it shows in the sparse, punchy, confrontational dialogue and explosions of violence. Falk’s continuing confrontation with those in the town who want him gone, as well as his developing friendships with others whom he works with to solve the crimes, in particular are really well-handled. the ending is not particularly a surprise, but the ramping up of tension leading to the denouement is exceptional. This is a great Australian suspense novel, up there with classics like Wake in Fright, immensely enjoyable if very confronting. A superb debut by Harper, and I look forward to more like it in the future.