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It’s a pressure cooker round here, mate. Little things become big things faster than you expect. You’d know that though.

–Scott Whitlam to Aaron Falk, The Dry

 

JANE HARPER’S STYLISH DEBUT, THE DRY, is one of the best crime novels we’ve read in a very long time. Set in Kiewarra, a small town in rural Victoria, rife with tension, teeming with hate and dying from the drought that’s engulfed it for the past two years, the book opens with the apparent murder–suicide of a local farmer, Luke Hadler, his wife, Karen, and young son, Billy. Aaron Falk, a federal police investigator and Luke’s childhood friend, returns to the town for the funeral at the behest of Luke’s parents who want to find out what led to the tragedy. While Luke’s mother can’t believe her son capable of murder, his father isn’t so sure. He knows that decades earlier, Luke and Aaron lied about their whereabouts when their friend, Ellie, died under suspicious circumstances. Her death resulted in Aaron and his father being driven out of town.

From its opening pages, The Dry draws us in. Harper’s pared back writing, sometimes lyrical language and authentic characterisation are mesmerising. She conjures up a savage, beautiful landscape in which nature is a formidable, destructive force and the townsfolk just ‘tiny dot[s] in time’, as Aaron acknowledges. Interwoven into the present ‘whodunnit’ story is the subplot of Ellie’s suicide/murder and Aaron and Luke’s roles in it, told through a series of almost seamless flashbacks.

The local townsfolk have long memories and the heat, lack of rain and their own personal and financial hardships exacerbate tensions. Rumours are as ‘fat and solid’ now as they were twenty years ago, when they ‘sprouted legs and heads’ and never ‘died’, culminating in the Falks’ exile from their home.

As Aaron and newly arrived policeman Greg Raco dig deeper into Luke’s life and the past, the locals become increasingly agitated and the violence escalates. Everyone, it seems, has a secret.

The Dry is a tightly constructed novel, with enough subplots and false starts to make it compulsive reading. It’s very hard to put down, largely because of Harper’s skill as a writer. Her descriptions of the landscape and evocation of the unyielding force of nature bring to mind the starkly beautiful penmanship of James Vance Marshall, James Lee Burke and Arnaldur Indridason.

This is a stunning debut, as acknowledged by the attention the book is rightfully receiving: the rights have been sold in more than 20 territories globally and it’s been optioned by Reese Witherspoon and Bruna Papandrea’s production company, Pacific Standard (Wild; Gone Girl).

We look forward to seeing what Jane Harper comes next. All good things, we’re sure.

 

 

Jane Harper’s The Dry • Published 12 January 2017 by Little, Brown * Hardback • £12.99 •

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Credits: This review is published as part of the Little, Brown book tour. Thank you to Grace Vincent, publicity director at Little, Brown, for supplying the review copy. Quoted text: Copyright © 2016 by Jane Harper. All opinions are our own. All rights reserved.

 

Also of interest: ‘Force of Nature – aka where’s Alice Russell’ (Aaron Falk #2); ‘The Woolgather’s companion – love in time of war’; Beauty in translation – Roxanne Bouchard’s Canadian noir‘; Johana Gustawsson’s Keeper – indie publisher Orenda does it again’;  ‘Elder’s last stand – John Harvey’s Black and Blue‘; An Alaskan epic – Rosamund Lupton’s The Quality of Silence‘; ‘The beauty of Sara Taylor’s The Shore’; ‘How Penguin learned to fly – Allen Lane and the Original “Penguin Ten”’; Dorothy L. Sayer’s Busman’s Holiday – Romek Marber for Penguin Crime (book covers we love).

 

This review is © 2017 by The Literary Shed. All rights are reserved. We welcome your feedback and comments so please do contact us or fill in the form below. If you wish to reproduce this piece, please do request permission. Thank you so much.