I am rarely drawn to contemporary crime, but there was something about The Dry which felt like it would be different. Perhaps it was simply the Australian setting – I spent a month this year travelling around there and haven’t quite come to terms with being back yet. Set in the parched farming community of Kiewarra, which has not seen a speck of rain in two years, The Dry conjures vividly Australia’s oppressive heat and vast open spaces. The farmers are at breaking point, praying for rain and telling themselves that this cannot go on forever – but there are no clouds on the horizon. Nowhere quite does heat like Australia, nowhere else manages the remoteness – and nowhere else has such an abundance of insect life. Indeed, it is the blowflies that first happen upon the Hadler family, finding ‘little difference between a carcass and a corpse’. Few feel truly surprised when they hear that Luke Hadler has snapped and turned his gun on his family and then himself – but is all as it appears?
Over in Melbourne, Aaron Falk is a federal agent specialising in financial crime and he would prefer not to get involved. It’s been decades since he was last in Kiewarra, when Ellie Deacon’s disappearance turned all eyes on him and not even his best friend Luke Hadler’s alibi quite washed him clean of the suspicion. But when Luke’s father contacts him, ‘You lied. Luke lied. Be at the funeral’, it hardly seems that he has much choice. Telling himself that he will leave straight afterwards, be there eighteen hours tops, he sets off. But we all know that it won’t be that simple.
There is something very particular about the isolation of the Australian outback, despite its beauty it also has a real menace. It is this which Joan Lindsay tapped into with the classic Picnic at Hanging Rock and it was also that which Barbara Baynton channelled in Bush Studies. Utterly different to both those books, The Dry nonetheless continues this outback horror tradition. Without rain, Kiewarra is a community in crisis and with bush fires on maximum alert, a lit match is more deadly than a loaded gun. Yet somehow, the concept of the family annihilator does feel like a very modern thing – the white middle-class male who flips and wipes out his family, while neighbours spout platitudes about how he had seemed so nice and that they never suspected a thing. There is an unease in how Luke Hadler’s parents stand at his funeral and talk about how much he loved his family – a local woman scolds Aaron for loyalty to his erstwhile best friend, calling what has happened not an act of a desperate man but rather the worst kind of domestic abuse. Harper seems to be acknowledging that there is something a little uncomfortable in looking for excuses – but is this case as simple as it appears?
From early on, there are hints of something off. Local policeman Raco notes the mismatch between the ammunition used to kill the family and that in Luke Hadler’s own supply. While his wife Karen and seven year-old son Billy have both been gunned down, one year-old daughter Charlotte was left alive. This does not fit the profile for someone wiping out their family – could it be that someone else carried out the crime and was less concerned about being observed by a baby who could not talk let alone testify? And it is surely a little strange that Karen was shot while answering the door – don’t most husbands have a key to their own front door?
Still, snaking through this mystery is another one. The disappearance of Ellie Deacon and the later discovery of her dead body may have happened back when Falk was fifteen but it has overshadowed his entire life. Through flashbacks, we find out more about the relationship between the teenage foursome of Luke and his girlfriend Gretchen along with Aaron and Ellie. Still while flashbacks are often used inartistically, Harper deploys them effortlessly – Aaron is back in his hometown for the first time since he was sixteen, of course he is revisiting memory lane. Catching up with the grown-up Gretchen, Aaron tries to understand better what was going on, about how a happy childhood could go so wrong. Luke was always the golden boy, no clouds on his horizon but knowing that he lied about Aaron’s alibi, Luke’s father frets that his son had some involvement in what happened to the enigmatic Ellie, that the family’s death is linked to what happened twenty years before. Are the two crimes connected? Or was Ellie’s death a tragic accident?
As Falk and Raco try to get to the bottom of what has happened to the Hadlers, local hostilities against Aaron bubble up to the surface again. Leaflets are circulated accusing him of involvement with Ellie’s death, shops refuse to serve him and the atmosphere starts to turn very, very nasty. This is one of those rare thrillers which managed to keep up its twists and turns in a way that was both compelling and unpredictable but which also drew together the strands of its plot in a way that was truly satisfying. My biggest personal bugbear with thrillers is that I can be drawn in by a story which then collapses in the final third. The Dry kept me guessing but concluded in a way that felt convincing. With Harper, I had the sense of an author who was meticulous in how she planned her plot – perhaps the convenient cliffhangers at chapter ends were a little neat, but for me, they were a sign of a writer who knew what she was doing. Bluntly, if all thrillers were as good as this, I would check out the genre more frequently.
It was with delight that I discovered that The Dry is the first in a planned series set around Aaron Falk -based on the book’s final pages, his story is far from over. I cannot claim to be an expert in Australia and even my own recent travels were still largely city-based but with The Dry I felt genuinely transported back there – Harper captures her character’s dialogue so perfectly that I felt I could hear them. Even Falk’s wanderings round Kiewarra’s streets made me think of the small towns which I did visit. I can see myself returning to Falk’s adventures – Harper captures a contemporary perspective on Australia which is bewitching to behold.
I received this book for free in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
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Published by Abacus on June 1st 2017
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