Jane Harper’s “The Dry” is set in a parched Australian farming community within a day’s drive of Melbourne. It’s a region that hasn’t seen rain in two years, and the novel’s main character, Aaron Falk, is jolted to see that a rushing river he remembers from his youth has all but disappeared. Harper is not one to drop a fact like that without using it later. She has jampacked her swift debut thriller with sneaky moves that the reader has to track with care.
At 36, Falk has been a pariah in the town, Kiewarra, since his teenage years, when he was forced to leave town for reasons that are, of course, not initially shared with the reader. As “The Dry” opens, he is back for 18 hours, tops (or so he tells himself). The circumstances are suitably ghoulish for a book that’s this much of a grabber: Falk’s onetime best friend, Luke Hadler, has apparently killed his wife and young son before turning his shotgun on himself. Only a baby girl too young to tell tales survived the family’s slaughter.
Falk grew up to be a federal agent in Melbourne. He has spent half his life putting his history behind him. The only reason he has returned is a letter from Luke’s father that summoned him in no uncertain terms: “You lied. Luke lied. Be at the funeral.” So here we are, only on Page 7, trying to figure out what they had to lie about.
Harper throws out so many teasing possibilities that it’s hard to believe this is her first novel. And even harder to believe that she learned to write fiction via a literary agency’s online writing course. (She had already been a print journalist for more than a decade.) One trick the course clearly taught her was a basic of the crime genre: Make sure that nothing is what it looks like at first sight. People trying to solve the Hadler murder case – and to deal with many other troubles that erupt in Kiewarra during Falk’s stay – are reliably quick to jump to the wrong conclusions.
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“The Dry” is a breathless page-turner, driven by the many revelations Harper dreams up for Falk during his visit. Eighteen hours? Did he really think he was going to get out of this memory-fraught town so quickly? He winds up extending his leave of absence from his Melbourne job and partnering with the only cop in sight, a very likable local named Raco, for a rogue investigation. Raco is one of the few characters in the book who is given much of a personality. The others conform to or violate Falk’s expectations. Either way, they are constrained. As for Falk, he’s too busy sniffing out clues and being haunted by terrible, puzzling flashbacks to have much mental space for anything else.
Falk retrieves his memories only gradually as he gets the lay of the land in Kiewarra – and learns to cope with the fact that just about 100 percent of the town’s population still blames and hates him. His flashbacks bring us back to that note that accused him and Luke of lying. About what?
Well, what else? A teenage girl who died long ago. She was beautiful and troubled, and at least one of the two must have been in love with her. Or both. Did they have anything to do with her fate? Did one cover up for the other’s crime? Did she somehow die by accident? Or is “The Dry” more Sherlockian, and is it better to think about evidence than old innuendoes?
In addition to its constant recovery of forgotten facts and little clues, “The Dry” skips along on frequent changes of focus. Harper’s energy is so unrestrainable that she tears off in a new direction every time Falk or Raco begins seeing the case from some previously unconsidered point of view. What if the reinterpretation of a single word changes everything? (This actually happens. And if you enjoy being hoodwinked by writers in this way, you’ll love Harper’s sleight of hand.)
What if even basic human emotions don’t count as excuses any more? “I loved her,” says someone who was close to the girl who died.
“Since when has that ever stopped anybody from hurting someone?” Falk replies.
This town does have more than its share of domestic violence, probably even in good weather. But the weather has driven everyone half-mad, so we wait patiently for full insanity to kick in. The dryness that gives the book its eerie title looms large in the novel’s finale, when certain kinds of weapons become even more terrible than those used to butcher the Hadlers. And a book with a secret on every page now has threats blooming everywhere, too.
“The Dry” has caught the attention of Reese Witherspoon, who has a solid track record for spotting novels with strong movie potential. (Want some evidence? “Gone Girl.”) But Harper has made her own major mark long before any film version comes along.
By Jane Harper
Flatiron Books, $25.99, 328 pages