Jane Harper, The Dry (2016)

Review by Lee Horsley

Jane Harper’s debut novel, The Dry (2016), is an unusually taut and engrossing novel. In many ways, it is a traditional investigative crime narrative. The protagonist, Federal Police investigator Aaron Falk, returns to the Australian country town of Kiewarra, a place he left twenty years ago, to attend the funerals of three members of the Hadler family – his childhood friend Luke, Luke’s wife and young son. The police and press have judged it to be a murder-suicide, explained by a struggling farmer having gone off the rails: “With the drought, who knows? Everyone is so desperate.”

Pressed by the Hadler family to challenge this verdict, Falk reluctantly takes leave and agrees to investigate unofficially. He soon realizes that past crimes and secrets from his own earlier life seem to be inextricably entangled with the horrific murders. The accusations made against him may prove to be unfounded, but he nevertheless feels that he carries some of the blame: “It was a cry that had come from too many lips since he’d returned to Kiewarra. If I’d known, I would have done things differently. It was too late for that now. Some things had to be lived with.”

Harper very skilfully creates suspense. Small pieces of evidence accumulate, misleading clues come to light and townsfolk provide false leads, propelling the investigation towards a gripping conclusion. What really sets The Dry apart, however, is the integration of plot and setting. The town of Kiewarra is so small that it is analogous to the self-contained world of classic detection, but the hostile landscape itself remorselessly shapes past and current events, affecting every strand of the plot. Characters who engender fear seem to share in the cruelty of the landscape, and no one is untouched by “the barrenness and the scale and the sheer bloody hardness of the land”.

The blowflies that swarm over the prologue “didn’t discriminate. To them there was little difference between a carcass and a corpse.” Harper’s opening horror film close-up of the indifferent flies feeding on “unblinking eyes and sticky wounds” conveys the pitiless effects of the worst drought conditions in a century: ‘”It’s a pressure cooker round here, mate. Little things become big things faster than you expect.”’ People who struggle to survive under such conditions are psychologically deformed in an environment that magnifies every feeling of anger, bitterness and desperation. Brutal crime and the savage natural world become inextricably linked in this expertly constructed narrative, making it intense and disturbing throughout.