“Luke lied. You lied. Be at the funeral.”
After receiving this eight word message from Jerry Hadler, the father of his childhood friend Luke, Federal Agent Aaron Falk returns to his drought-stricken home town of Kiewarra in Australia to attend Luke’s funeral. The evidence is apparently incontrovertible: Luke, for no reason that anybody can fathom, has brutally murdered his wife and son before turning the shotgun upon himself. There has been no rain in this small farming community for years and desperation hangs heavy in the air. Was it Luke that killed his family in a moment of heat-fuelled madness? Or are these brutal killings somehow linked to the mysterious death of Luke and Aaron’s friend Ellie Deacon twenty years ago, after which Aaron left town and never returned? And, as Jerry’s note implies, did Aaron have a part to play in what happened to her?
The Dry seems to be following a bit of a trend for novels set in the midst of a heatwave, which causes a sort of temporary insanity to grip the communities in which they are based, bringing long-buried secrets and lies bubbling out of the overbaked asphalt. Alongside The Dry, other recent novels set in similar circumstances are The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon and Little Deaths by Emma Flint. The backdrop of the drought really works in The Dry; there is something about the intensity of the heat that ratchets up the tension a notch, turning people against one another and rendering every character an object of suspicion. It also makes the horrendous crime committed seem more realistic: the interminable, crushing heat of the sun has brought this town to the very edge – who knows what it could drive a person to?
Considering that this is her debut novel, I was very impressed by the way Jane Harper has deftly woven together the strands of two mysteries (the brutal Hadler killings and the case of Ellie Deacon from Falk’s teenage years) to create a taut, multi-faceted plot that kept me guessing until the end. It was also surprisingly easy to follow, despite its complexity. Aaron’s investigation into the unspeakable crime apparently committed by his friend, with the help of local cop Greg Raco, is set against a backdrop of vivid flashbacks that slowly reveal the events leading up to Ellie’s death twenty years previously, the repercussions of which are still reverberating powerfully in the present. Indeed, the townspeople’s increasing hostility towards Falk serves as a constant reminder that they suspect his involvement (“Luke lied. You lied.”), keeping the intrigue of the past narrative very much alive. I enjoyed the fact that Falk was not an impartial investigator; whereas in many crime novels, the detective acts as an objective observer, Falk’s emotional investment in both cases made for very interesting reading.
The cast of characters, from Luke’s old flame Gretchen to the malevolent Mal Deacon and his unpleasant nephew Grant, provide interesting side narratives as well as advancing the main investigation, with their dark pasts and well-kept secrets keeping the suspicion bouncing from one person to the next. The setting of a closed community hostile to outsiders means that there are a limited number of suspects, creating a great “whodunit” setup. To the book’s credit, I did not predict the ending at all (although whether that is to do with Harper’s plot or my utter incompetency at guessing these things remains unclear). Despite a slightly slow start (with a lot of long conversations to explain and build context), the revelations, twists and turns come thick and fast as the plot progresses, leading to a rather gripping finish. Given that I’ve read more than my fair share of thrillers that open with a bang and go out with a slightly damp fizzle, I think Harper got it the right way round. The only thing I would say is that the resolution of the Ellie Deacon case felt like a slight afterthought compared to the exciting conclusion of the main investigation.
As an audiobook, I wasn’t entirely convinced by the narrator’s performance; I felt that he didn’t make enough of a distinction between the voices of the various characters and his attempt at a Scottish accent left rather a lot to be desired, to say the least. Having said that, the actual narration was expressive and I love a good Aussie accent, and the minor flaws I’ve described in no way detracted from my enjoyment of the book.
Star Rating: 4/5