The Dry by Jane Harper
By Linda McBride
“The Dry” is the debut novel of an Australian, born in Manchester, who has spent recurring periods of her life and career in both countries. The book is a detective novel about the investigation of three murders in a small rural Outback town called Kiewarra. A city policeman, Aaron Falk, is unwillingly roped in to the case when he attends the funerals in this small town of his youth; a town which he and his father left twenty years previously under a cloud of suspicion with regard to another death.
The “Dry” refers to the two-year drought, a real-life period for many Australian towns, which has been occurring over the past decade in several Australian districts as a result of climate change.
It was fascinating for me, living in soggy and temperate Newbury, to have this climate and its terrible effects so vividly described, and to compare some of the claustrophobia and mental anguish of the characters’ lives to the same feelings that have overtaken us for completely different, pandemic-related, reasons.But this is not a book that, I trust, will depress denizens of the Central South of good old England. There is almost universal approval of this book, from The Literary Review: “It is gripping, atmospheric and original” to The Evening Standard: “From the searing opening, heat, dust and tension rise from the pages of this fast moving, tightly plotted and involving thriller.”
Our detective Aaron Falk attends the funerals of his friend Luke Hadler, his wife Karen and son Billy. It appears that Luke shot his family and then himself due to money troubles because of the unrelenting drought. Luke’s parents do not believe this. They ask a reluctant Aaron to see what he can unearth.
Aaron joins forces with local officer Sergeant Raco. Both the men have noticed things that just do not support the cut-and-dried conclusion that Luke is the killer. But they must tread carefully- Kiewarra is a small community where memories are long, grudges last even longer, and some of the townspeople have a mean streak a mile wide.
One of the meanest is Mal Deacon, father of Ellie, found drowned in the river twenty years previously. A note was found in her room addressed to the teenage Aaron, with a train time next to it. The townspeople conclude that Aaron and Ellie were going to leave Kiewarra by this train, but quarrelled, and Aaron must have killed Ellie. Luke Hadler, however, alibis Aaron, saying they spent the day together.
The small-town secrets gradually rise like the gases from the festering corpses of the dead livestock.
The writing is exceptional: rich, tense and building slowly but triumphantly to a blistering (literally) denouement where the terrible dryness of the land has its own part to play.
Jane Harper has written three more books, her second also featuring Aaron Falk. If you enjoy The Dry, you will enjoy the others also. I particularly like her third, standalone The Lost Man. They all feature the Australian setting and portray different aspects of Australian lives and livelihoods which are very different to British experiences.