Reviewed by Terrie Ferman
A page-turner that hooks the reader from the first page to the last – this is Jane Harper’s exceptional crime novel, The Dry.
This finely plotted book interweaves two tragic events separated by twenty years. The first is the death of Ellie Deacon who drowned aged 16. Suicide seemed likely but foul play not impossible. The doubt cast by Ellie’s death creates a cloud of suspicion that has continued to lour ever since over Kiewarra, the small country town where the story takes place. The lives of three young people, friends of Ellie, changed after her death. Gretchen was cold shouldered by her peers. She felt ‘like I was tainted by association’. Ellie’s male friends at the time, Luke Hadler and Aaron Falk, endured outright suspicion. Gretchen and Luke stayed in Kiewarra while Aaron, with his father, moved to Melbourne where Aaron became a police officer.
Now Luke Hadler is dead in what appears to be an all too frequent scenario: distraught farmer on drought-devastated farm kills his family and then himself. It’s what the town thinks. It’s what it looks like. In this tragic context, Falk is most reluctantly back in town to attend the funerals of Luke, his wife Karen, and their young son Billy. The baby, Charlotte, has been mysteriously spared. Falk’s been heavily pressured by Luke’s parents to investigate the deaths. He really wants no part of this. He wants to stay in Kiewarra with its tragic memories as briefly as possible. But he feels a debt to Luke’s mother, Barb, who had been the closest person he’d ever had to a mother, his own having died giving birth to him.
In this investigation, Aaron Falk is helped by the smart new cop in town, Raco, who is observant and quickly notices some inconsistencies at the crime scene. Falk is in. The two quickly establish mutual trust and make a formidable team. By the end of ‘The Dry’, the Hadler killings are solved by solid police work; and Falk finally learns what happened to Ellie. In both cases, the writer has played fair with her readers and planted all the necessary clues. Still, I’d suggest that it would be a rare reader who works out what happened, especially with the Hadlers.
The quality of Harper’s tight plotting is matched by her compelling creation of believable characters. In her drawing of the two cops, Harper has done something quite original in breaking away from the crime genre’s frequent depiction of police as seriously flawed, if not outright corrupt. Falk and Raco are honest, competent, likeable, non-feral cops. There’s not so much as a whiff of corruption in the air. When Raco bypasses his colleagues during the investigation, it’s only to avoid bureaucracy, not for dodgy reasons.
Other players include the dour Scottish barman McMurdo, the cranky old farmer Mal Deacon and his nasty nephew Grant Dow, the stressed school teacher Scott Whitlam, and an aggressive school mum. These characters are all fully rounded people. Some provide important clues about Kiewarra’s past and recent deaths, others show up social issues. Some do both.
There is another important character in this story: the drought itself. The dryness of the environment brings to mind Garry Disher’s Bitter Wash Road. Kiewarra and its surroundings are a tinderbox of fire-ready fodder. The days are scorching with the level of the fire danger rising steadily. ‘Shade was a fleeting commodity’ as the worst drought in a century was inexorably destroying the livelihoods of farmers and townspeople alike. The shops are closing because people don’t have money to spend in them. The rot is everywhere. The school looks rundown and tattered; even the school kids’ drawings have brown-coloured fields.
Even without the debilitating drought, Kiewarra is not an appealing place. The reader gets the sense that, even if the rain came, Kiewarra would still not be a good place to live. It’s painted as insular, narrow minded, non-accepting and blaming. It’s a place you’d be glad to get away from. We can readily sympathise with Falk’s eagerness to be gone.
While the plot always takes precedence, Harper threads important social issues throughout. The town’s disturbing social ugliness is glimpsed through nasty scenes in the pub, in a shop and in a playground when Falk and Gretchen are threatened, physically or verbally, by some townspeople who disapprove of Falk’s return. Harper shows how some communities can turn a blind eye to the scourge of domestic violence. We see that mutual reliance, usually seen as a virtue, can be the very opposite. As Barb Hadler, the distraught mother of Luke, says: ‘It takes a lot for people to be willing to stand up and rock the boat…We all needed each other to get by.’ Other social concerns woven through the story include parental abandonment, adolescent angst and, particularly poignantly, parent-child relationships. The writer handles these serious issues with a deft touch. There’s no preaching, no position taking. Any ‘message’ emerges through the characters’ lives and their stories.
This tightly structured and well paced novel expertly toggles between the past and the present. Flashbacks are frequent but relatively brief and not overdone. By using this device, the author keeps the reader very much in the present without letting us forget the earlier mystery.
‘The Dry’ is a novel that richly deserves to be read not only by crime fiction fans but by anyone who appreciates good writing.
By Jane Harper
Pan McMillan Australia
$32.99; 342 pages
Terrie Ferman is a Brisbane writer.