Harper’s book begins with the archetypical setting of blowflies in the dry heat of the Australian outback. However, here, they buzz around three dead bodies at the scene of an apparent murder-suicide in the small rural town of Kiewarra.
Aaron Falk, who grew up in the town and left twenty years before the murders for reasons not disclosed to the reader at the beginning, returns to attend the funeral of his onetime friend, Luke Hadler, and Luke’s wife and young son. Most of the town believes that Luke killed his wife and son before turning the gun on himself and it seems to be an open and shut case. But Falk, now a federal agent in Melbourne, received a note from Luke’s father after the incident that said, “Luke lied. You lied. Be at the funeral.” Aaron has given himself a maximum of 18 hours in the town before leaving and never returning but he is asked to investigate whether Luke really could have performed such a heinous act. As Aaron delves deeper into the crime, he unearths secrets about the entire town and about his own past before he left following the death of a close friend.
The stifling heat of the Australian outback, which is masterfully described by Harper, makes an interesting change from the bleakness of the Scandinavian crime thrillers popular in the last few years. The setting undoubtedly adds to the tension in the small town, with the constant threat of bushfires signifying the incendiary nature of small town society following a two-year drought. In this setting, lighters are even more dangerous than guns. The landscape is literally and figuratively killing the inhabitants of the town, drying the grass and the rivers, and forcing people to move elsewhere to earn a living. This is a dangerous place full of isolated dirt roads, sprawling, uninhabited fields, and lonely riverbanks. When you add the threatening cast of characters, which includes farmers, the town’s doctor, housewives, and the school principal, the setting becomes even more dangerous and it soon becomes clear that everyone has secrets to hide. The novel shows that this landscape, and the people that live in it, are as unforgiving as the snowy wastelands of Scandinavian crime drama.
The novel creates tensions between different generations, forms of motherhood, and classes. But it also shows the tensions that exist between the past and the present as Harper skillfully reveals a carefully plotted narrative. As Aaron unravels the truth behind Luke’s life leading up to his death, he also deals with the events leading up to his departure from the town and looks at the lies that Luke’s father believes he told in the past. Although the novel frequently switches between the past and the present, Harper never loses momentum or clarity, which ultimately makes the book an exciting page-turner.
The Dry is a stunning debut and Harper writes with an ease that makes it hard to believe that this is her first novel. The book won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript in 2015. Already a huge success, it has been sold to over twenty publishers worldwide and, unsurprisingly, Reese Witherspoon’s production company has optioned it for adaptation.
I look forward to Harper’s next novel already.