by Janice Law
It is always a pleasure to discover a
good new – or new to me – writer, especially someone from an unfamiliar
corner of the mystery world. The award winning Jane Harper, born in the
UK, raised in Australia, educated in part back in the UK, and now
living and writing in Australia, fits the bill.
Her novels, two so far with a third out this month, are rooted in the Australian landscape. The Dry,
set in the backwater farming town of Kiewarra, is about the murder of a
family. But it is also about the corrosive effects of prolonged
drought, blistering heat, and looming fires on a struggling insular
community. She creates the hardscrabble sheep-raising district with
visceral intensity, a perfect scene for her tough, frazzled, anxious
If The Dry is all about heat and looming impoverishment, Force of Nature offers
upscale characters and an icy rain – Aussie weather apparently runs to
extemes. A top female executive goes missing on a pricy bonding
adventure in a wildlife reserve, a place of towering trees, impenetrable
undergrowth, and sinister history. Rain and cold, missed trails, lost
food and water lead to a breakdown, different from, but nearly as
complete as that faced by citizens in bone dry Kiewarra. In both novels,
Aaron Falk, joined by his new work partner Carmen Cooper in Force of Nature, provides a thoughtful, reserved presence.
novels are skillfully well-plotted with an abundance of possible (and
plausible) suspects and poignant collateral damage. What interested me,
however, was her variation of the traditional and familiar device of
past is prologue. The crime in each novel has echoes of long past
misdeeds, mistakes, and relationships. Nothing new there.
is original, I think, is the way that Harper has woven glimpses of the
past into the ongoing narrative. Throughout both books, short italicized
sections challenge, and sometimes correct, what characters claim in the
present. In The Dry in particular, a scene may be presented more
than once, the second time reversing the meaning of a remark or an
event that had originally seemed quite straightforward, sending the
investigation on a new direction.
Often the corrections
or elucidations have to do with events from the characters’ own youth.
Childhood is rarely a golden age for Harper’s characters and even those
initially blessed with happiness rarely sustain it long. But if joy is
fleeting, youthful friendships, hatreds, and rivalries have a long life
in her fiction. It is perhaps not giving too much away to say that
memories of the past both assist and hinder Federal Agent Falk in his
investigations. Or that the investigator, primarily a financial sleuth
specializing in fraud and white collar crime, is himself shadowed by
long ago events in Kiewarra.
it may not be to every reader’s taste, I found Falk’s restraint in his
personal relations a pleasant and realistic change from the heavy
breathing romances that so often feature in mysteries and, especially,
thrillers. A fleeting hint of attraction to his new partner and a
nostalgic visit to a popular classmate back in his home town are enough
to indicate Falk’s uncertain confidence and basic decency. He’s got baggage, but he’s an adult.
Harper worked for a number of years as a journalist in Australia before
winning a short story contest led her to begin taking her fiction more
seriously. Apparently a 12 week online course in novel writing proved
instrumental in turning an early manuscript into The Dry. Nice to know
that contests and online courses occasionally can pay off!