Jane Harper’s debut novel The Dry is gripping Australian crime novel, bristling with energy and imagery. It hasn’t rained in Kiewarra, rural Victoria, for years. It is high summer, hot, tensions in the community already high when three members of the Hadler family are discovered shot dead on their property: it is apparent that Luke committed suicide after murdering his wife and young son. Federal Police investigator Aaron Falk, child of the town but now resident of Melbourne returns for the funerals and is unwillingly drawn into the investigation. Suspicion spreads through the town, as Falk is forced to confront the community over the childhood secret that Luke’s death is threatening to reveal.
From the first page this book stops your breath. The preface roams the Hadler’s property, examining the blowflies in the heat, not able to discriminate between a carcass and a corpse. There are three, smooth-skinned sources for the flies, and one screaming baby with no humans around to hear. Chapter One opens with Aaron driving into town for the funeral, the sun bearing down on the street, the town, the people, the over-filled local church. It is immediate and visceral. Later, when he is exploring the old riverbed where he used to go swimming as a kid:
“Falk tried to take a deep breath but the air tasted warm and cloying in his mouth. His own naivety taunted him like a flicker of madness. How could he have imagined fresh water still ran by these farms as animals lay dead in the paddocks? How could he nod dumbly as the word drought was thrown around, and never realise this river ran dry?”
It is a classic crime drama set up. Complete with an ellipses end to the blurb, we have death, mystery, investigation, small-town suspicions, and a hero with a history he would rather not reveal. In this way, it is true to genre, and while The Dry may follow the recipe it does not feel formulaic. Harper’s pacing is perfect, and the story is perfectly contextualised in its very specific contemporary Australian rural setting.
This is the point of difference for me, I think. It is a well-written mystery, a gripping piece of crime fiction, but Harper’s excellent observational setting in this small farming town give it a very distinct and particular flavour that feels very true and real. You can see why it was the winner of the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript in 2015, and has since gone on to win three more awards since.
This setting also allows Harper an exploration of the economic and social problems of this time under these pressures. The local primary school worn and un-repaired, its walls covered in children’s paintings of their dead cow, the brown hills; the same crowd in the one pub every evening, bickering and scrapping. What does a town turn to when there is so much loss and struggle? There is a simmering resentment within the community because no one sees a way out: why did Luke have to take himself and his family that way first?
And my fears of a forgiving of domestic violence did not eventuate. To me, the premise of this book sounded like the Lockhart murder suicide of 2015, where to ‘spare’ his family, farmer Geoff Hunt killed his wife and children before himself. Posthumous valorisation of a man under pressure repulsed me: this was domestic violence at its absolute worse. But this is not that story, and Harper deftly manages the issues and implications.
The Dry is so gripping that I read it in a single evening. It is a genuine mystery, perfectly paced, sharply felt and exquisitely contextualised. Harper’s observations are sensitive and disruptive, noting a country and community socially and psychologically damaged, in a tinder box of a drought. Stunning.