Two of three brothers meet, the eldest and the youngest, at the old stockman’s grave at where their two vast cattle properties met. It is almost Christmas, the outback Queensland heat is unrelenting, and at their feet is the body of their middle brother, Cameron. The Bright family’s remote and quiet existence is thrown into grief and anguish as they try to grapple with what happened. Did he loose hope, and walk out to his death? In all this isolation, could someone who bore a grudge have some revenge? Narrated by Nathan, the eldest, Jane Harper‘s latest novel The Lost Man is a brilliant, sensitive thriller.
The stockman’s grave is a landmark so old, no one really knows anymore who is buried there. And this far out, where your closest neighbour is three hours drive away, there is plenty of space for rumour and myth. Harper perfectly sketches this setting, and the impact it has upon a person. This endless, dry, flat land; days in a row of over 45 degrees; one cop covering an area the size of Victoria all on his own; the suffocation of a small town knowing your business, even when there are so many hundreds of kilometres between you all.
And in this place there are some very basic things that you are taught when young, and never forget. Which is why it is so confusing when Nath’s brother is found dead from dehydration having walked away from his car – fully stocked with water and food, and in perfect condition. Talk of something that had been troubling Cameron recently arises and the family look around at one another wondering if they really are as sure as they thought they were. We have the genre’s typical damaged, loner lead with a dark past but he isn’t an investigator: with this death the cops just aren’t interested so it turns into a family story.
Harper has an incredible eye for detail and pacing, revealing small facts one by one building up the pressure: her plots are astonishing, forceful, gripping. Not only is this a pitch-perfect thriller, ratcheting up the tension, but it is also compassionate. There is a thoughtfulness and intelligence in what is used and how, nothing is unnecessary and nothing is gratuitous. Reading Harper, I un-learn the wariness that comes with being a woman consuming popular culture.
I also loved the Australian-ness of it all, and not for tourism, or with stereotypes, but what feels real. The build up of summer, the endless heat, Christmas, family. And the hard, relentless landscape. Something that defies reasonable understanding, so old and so empty.
“At night, when the sky felt even bigger, he could almost imagine it was a million years ago and he was walking on the bottom of the sea. A million years ago when a million natural events still needed to occur, one after the other, to form this land as it lay in front of him now. A place where rivers flooded without rain and seashells fossilised a thousand miles from water and men who left their cars found themselves walking to their deaths.”
The land and the lives lived on it boggles the mind. The effect that kind of living can have on a person is easy to imagine. Harper has a kind of respect when dealing with it. She does not seem to presume to master or understand, but her representation of it speaks to her respect and its mystery.
It astonishes me how she has grappled with the Australian landscape to make it this essential, haunting, necessary reality in her books, sketching out lives in a certain kind of country and immediately making them feel real, known. If it hadn’t already been proven, The Lost Man shows Harper is a new kind of master of this genre: gripping and intelligent, thrilling and compassionate. This is new crime drama.