Jane Harper stormed onto the contemporary crime scene last year with The Dry with the mystery of what happened to the Hadler family one of my top reads of last year. Force of Nature, the follow-up featuring the return of Detective Aaron Falk, has therefore a fairly hefty weight of expectation. By title alone, it is clear that Harper is determined to go ‘big’ with this installment and to prove herself to be more than a one-hit wonder. We have a missing woman, an unforgiving landscape, the whispers of possible serial killer involvement and a cast of characters with secrets to keep. Five went out. Only four have come back.
We catch up with Aaron Falk back in his flat in Melbourne and back in the office in the Financial Investigations Unit. With an opening adventure like The Dry which took Falk out of his comfort zone and back to his hometown to Kiewarra, the challenge for Harper is to prove that even when just doing his day job, Aaron Falk can still have a plausibly exciting life. She clearly does not wish to over-rely on her debut, so we are told that Falk’s burns are healing nicely, he has a new car after his old one was deluged with manure and Kiewarra remains for the most part out of sight, but one suspects it is not completely out of mind.
The case here is around what has become of Alice Russell. She was due to provide Falk and his partner Carmen with the crucial whistleblowing evidence that would bring down an accountancy firm suspected of decades-long money-laundering, but she has abruptly vanished on a corporate retreat. To add further complications, she placed a missed call to Aaron’s phone in the wee small hours just before she was reported missing. Where is she? Did her involvement with the investigation put her in danger? Under pressure from their superiors to find the evidence which Alice’s disappearance has rendered more complicated, Aaron and Carmen head out to try and find what has become of Alice.
The retreat set out with ten people from the firm, a men’s group who arrived back ‘a respectable thirty-five minutes ahead of the midday target’ but as the women’s party failed to reappear, smugness gave way to concern. This is a retreat which they have participated in for several years run by the same highly respectable company. Surely nothing can have gone wrong. But then four women stumble back, two of them supporting a third and the fourth with blood over her forehead. It is a few minutes before any of them ask if Alice had made it back safe. Snaking in and out of the search for Alice are flashbacks from the group’s ill-fated expedition, starting with that very morning when the four picked themselves up to try and find help, agreeing among themselves that ‘Alice brought this on herself’.
Force of Nature is set in the fictional Giralang Ranges, famous to Falk for its reputation as former hunting ground of a well-known serial killer. While ‘they found most of the bodies eventually’, the cabin he used for his crimes was never located and there is the slight risk that the killer’s son just may still be operational in the area. As the flashbacks of the women’s group progress, an additional shudder runs through the reader when they find a cabin which appears to offer much-needed shelter but which does have a horribly stained mattress in the corner. The Bush’s power to haunt is conjured up vividly here – Alice has vanished into nowhere in a manner worthy of Joan Lindsay’s Picnic on Hanging Rock.
This is in essence a locked room mystery. There is no phone reception – leading to a hovering question mark as to how and why Alice contacted Falk on the morning of her disappearance – and the main suspects are those within her party. There’s Jill, daughter of the firm’s founder and forced into complicity with their doings, then Lauren, who has problems at home and is struggling with her job. The twins Bree and Beth make up the rest of the group – less close than their employers had assumed, Bree is the high-flier who is less than impressed that her overweight sibling who is on probation got a job on her turf. Add in Alice who even Falk and Carmen acknowledge to be difficult and we have a tinderbox ready to explode. Of course, the twist is that these women are not locked in a room as their tempers fray. They are in the wide open Bush with acres of sky before them, and yet they are trapped.
In and among all of this, there are other plotlines competing for our attention. Falk examines his father’s maps to look for more clues about trails within the Giralang Ranges, still trying to understand the old man better after the revelations within the last book. Back in Melbourne, there’s underage sexting, anorexia and a variety of other teenage problems bubbling beneath the surface. We also get to see Falk’s sparsely furnished flat, with Carmen casting a critical eye over what she feels needs to change if Falk hopes to ever attract any female companionship. There is real potential for an interesting partnership between these two, provided that it doesn’t spill over into romantic tension with Carmen’s imminent marriage. Harper has a real gift for description which summons up an incredibly powerful sense of place – whether it is noting the incredibly old sofa in the centre near the ranges, or the fact that Aaron’s flat has a magazine rack but no armchairs, with both of Harper’s books, I have felt able to see where she was trying to put her characters.
Force of Nature packs the same punch as its predecessor, proving Harper’s success was far more than a flash in the pan. As before, she kept me genuinely guessing as to what Alice’s possible fate might have been and when the reveal came, I was truly stunned. Force of Nature depicts the power and potential menace of the Australian wilderness – for all that it is a beautiful country, this truly is where the wild things are. With whispers of a return to Kiewarra in the finale, I cannot wait to see where Falk goes next.
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Published by Hachette UK on September 26th 2017
Genres: Fiction, General
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