By Jane Harper; Pan Macmillan Aust.; 2016; 239 pp.
I haven't been going to the movies much lately. Mainly because, since "Me Before You", there hasn't been anything that I particularly want to see. So, I have returned to reading. You know, those old-fashioned paper things with pages you actually turn? Did a lot of it when I was younger, then as I got older and more immersed in professional legal reading, I tended to drift away from it somewhat. Now, I am enjoying getting back to books, for a change. There is some good, modern fiction out there, so, I will pen some comments in this space, when I come across books I really enjoyed.
I greatly enjoyed this one, "The Dry". Written by a first-time novelist from Melbourne, who has a journalistic background, this is a rattling good murder mystery. It's a real page-turner and I almost read it in one session.
The country town of Kiewarra is stricken by drought. Nerves are frayed, businesses are broken, and hope is dying. Then, a local farmer, Luke Hadler, is found dead in his ute, half his head blown off and his shot-gun in his hands. In his farmhouse nearby, his wife and young son also lie dead, blown apart by a shot-gun. His baby daughter is the only family member to survive, completely unharmed. The local cops are thinking it's a murder-suicide, with Hadler driven over the edge by the drought. The town gathers for the funeral of the three Hadlers.
Aaron Falk is an off-duty member of the AFP. His usual beat is financial crime, not murder. Twenty years before, Falk and Hadler were childhood friends growing up together in Kiewarra. Falk, now living and working in Melbourne, reads the funeral notice and decides to attend the funeral of his old friend. At the funeral, Falk is contacted by Hadler's elderly parents who he knew well years before. They don't accept the "murder-suicide" theory. They think someone else is involved. They ask Falk to look into the case. At first reluctant, Falk agrees, mainly because of his long friendship with the Hadlers.
But Falk himself is under a cloud of suspicion. Many years before, a local teenage girl, with whom the young Falk was linked, committed "suicide" and many townsfolk still blame Falk for the disaster. So when he starts digging around, asking questions, helped by a sympathetic local sergeant, Falk meets suspicion and hostility. Not only that, a conspiracy of silence between Hadler and Falk, stretching back 20 years to that suicide, is revealed. As Falk chips away at the case, more and more intriguing details and mysteries about his own past in the town come to light.
This novel is partly police procedural, but partly other things too. It is a story of a country community under stress. It is a story of what happens when a sense of community is blown apart by suspicion and old feuds. It is also a story of teenage friendship, coming-of-age, and dark family secrets. It is also a story of what happens when the present collides with the past.
As clues are revealed, and as more suspects come to light and are then (maybe) eliminated, the tension mounts. The author is very good at re-creating country town atmosphere and teenage characters from the past. I lived in a country town when I was young, and much of what these fictional teenagers went through 20 years ago, I went through more than 50 years ago. Aaron Falk himself, as a character, is well drawn and nicely developed, though he is not without faults. The novel uses an excellent mixture of present-day narrative and flashbacks to tell this riveting yarn. The writer also has an excellent sense of pace. She spreads out her revelations, twists and turns, not too quickly and not too slowly. I thought I had picked out the murderer about three-quarters of the way through the book. I couldn't have been more wrong.
I hope Ms Harper writes more "whodunnits". This excellent first novel bodes well for her future writing career. I'd like to see more of Aaron Falk in print too, down the track. He might be a financial affairs cop, but he's not half-bad as a homicide investigator. Although most of the storylines in "The Dry" are eventually put to bed, there is a hint of a loose end right at the finish. Maybe officer Falk will get to do his stuff again. Let's hope so.
I'm giving this novel 4 1/2 stars out of five.