In October 2016, The Dry was first reviewed in these pages. Since then, the author Jane Harper has published two further books as equally acclaimed as this one was. QRC now offers a second review by a different reviewer.
Reviewed by Gerard Healy
This is a great debut crime/ mystery novel from Jane Harper.
It is set in and around a drought-affected country town in Australia suffering from a recent tragedy: the apparent murder-suicide of a family of three. It draws back to town a reluctant prodigal son, Aaron Falk. He and his father left the district twenty years earlier under a cloud, after the death of his friend, 16-year-old Ellie Deacon. Small town gossip had cast suspicions on him and his best friend Luke, who is the husband/father at the centre of the latest tragedy.
This is a story where the past intertwines with the present. Aaron is both aided by his insights into local characters and hampered by long held grudges. One of the complications we’re made aware of early on is that Luke and Aaron lied about the alibi they made up for the time that Ellie died. This casts a shadow over the present.
Harper uses the effective device of changing the font when writing about the past, so it’s clear which time period we’re in. She also cleverly blends developments in the present investigation with insights into the teenage world of the four friends, Aaron, Luke, Ellie and Gretchen. We’re kept in suspense about whether some event in the past has affected the current situation.
The dominant thread of the book is the unofficial re-opening of the murder-suicide investigation by the town’s new Police sergeant, Greg Raco, and Aaron Falk. Falk is a financial investigator with the Federal Police in Melbourne and he and Raco quickly form an effective team. Both men come to have some doubts about the official verdict because of a few inconsistencies which were dismissed by the original Police team from a nearby town.
Harper is good at character development and she gives some a sense of humour as well. One example is Raco’s description of the investigating Police forming a gymnastics team to cover their asses should any doubt be thrown their way about their verdict.
A small town is populated with all sorts. Harper gives us a range from the local bully to the more esteemed members, such as the doctor and school principal. And, of course, the majority in the middle. Most are wrestling with typical human foibles and trying to cope with life in a struggling town. Some locals jump at the chance to snub Aaron from their experiences as teenagers while a few such as Gretchen and Luke’s mum Barb welcome his return.
The bully is local farmer Mel Deacon, father of the dead Ellie and a thorn in the side of Aaron. Because of the onset of dementia, Mel is not the physical threat he once was, but his nephew Grant stirs up trouble for Aaron. The pressure to leave builds up but Aaron is made of sterner stuff. There’s a certain irony here because, originally, he only wanted to stay the least amount of time he decently could.
One of the reasons for this is that his friendship with Luke had fallen away. Aaron hadn’t met him for years and didn’t even attend his wedding to Karen and so he’s never even met her. All Aaron knows is that Karen worked part-time in the school office and seemed to be a loving wife and mother. Because of this rift, Aaron is initially unsure if Luke could have committed such a monstrous crime against his family.
Another thread is the gradual realisation by Aaron of the true nature of Ellie’s life before she was found drowned near his property. Too late does he become aware of the reasons for her silences and behaviour changes. His kindness towards her was one of the few happier segments of her life.
I would definitely recommend this book to readers. It has interesting characters, a novel plot and a convincing Australian country town setting. Besides, it’s won a swag of awards!
Jane Harper was born in 1980 in Manchester, England. Her family moved to Australia when she was eight, but then returned later to the UK. She attended the University of Kent and then worked as a journalist for over a decade. She has won several prestigious awards for ‘The Dry’ (2016) including the CWA Gold Dagger and the Book of the Year from the Australian Book Industry Awards (2017). A film based on the book is due out this year.
by Jane Harper
ISBN: 9781925481372 (Paper Back)
$16.99; pp 352