The Dry – A Gripping Page-Turner Set in a Blistering Landscape
The Dry – a taut murder mystery – revolves around Melbourne Federal Agent Aaron Falk who returns to rural hometown Kiewarra for the funeral of his best childhood friend Luke Hadler. The general talk in the town is that Luke has shot himself before killing his wife Karen and 6 year old son Billy. The toddler Charlotte is the only survivor of Luke’s family. Kiewarra is a farming town that’s going through worst drought in years. The dry riverbed and parched land had driven the land owners to rage and despair. The community prevalent with alcoholism and fear of wildfire has gone past breaking point with the onset of drought. The murders and suicide is seen as the product of this desperate situation. It’s been 20 years since Falk set foot in Kiewarra. Falk and his father were run out of town after he was accused of killing a troubled teenage girl Ellie Deacon. Except for Luke’s parents, Gerry and Barb and old friend Gretchen, no one is pleased to see the thirty six year old Falk back in town.
Luke’s parents don’t wholly believe that their son would have murdered his family before turning the gun on himself. They beg Falk to look into it. Being a Federal Agent, specializing in financial investigations, Falk can’t do much officially. But for their satisfaction, Falk takes few days off and decides to follow the farm’s money trail. He takes up residence at the upstairs of a local bar, encounters many unfriendly faces and endures array of abuses. Teamed up with Falk, in unofficial capacity, is the local cop Raco who’s got a good eye for murder investigation. He brings up the oddities plaguing the ‘desperate farmer’ theory. The central question that drives the investigation is whether Ellie’s death has got something to with this? The untangling of the knots in the two cases, 20 years apart, isn’t very easy since Falk has to confront his own haunted past and unearth many buried secrets. As Raco says, “You’re staring so hard at the past that it’s blinding you.”
Author Jane Harper worked as a journalist in Australia and British before taking on a literary agency’s online creative writing course. It set her on the path to take up the daunting responsibility of writing a crime novel. Jane Harper’s debut novel The Dry is a page-turner with sharp-twists and unanticipated coincidences (won Victorian Premier Award for unpublished manuscripts in 2015). This is expected to be the first of series of novels with Australian Federal Agent Aaron Falk as the protagonist. What makes it better than most of the convoluted page-turning police procedural is Harper’s sense of evocating the simmering and tense atmosphere. The opening passages chronicling the arrival of blowflies and the unbearable funeral service instantly catches our attention. Harper’s prose is brusque and ably conveys the characters’ emotions. While the author ticks off many conventions of the genre and doesn’t do much to transcend the boundaries of crime fiction, her precision and sense of urgency in narrating the tale provides an engrossing experience.
At one point Falk reads a page-turner at his room to pass the time. He later reiterates the preposterously twisted plot to Raco. This simple episode may hint at Harper’s opposite or logical approach to the mystery. There aren’t any grander, unforeseen twists here. On hindsight, everything from Falk’s investigation to the revealing of murderer identity has a tangible psychological aspect attached to it. Novels set in rural communities have repeatedly gone through the themes of poverty, sins of the past and atonement. Harper, however, instills a bout of freshness in approaching these familiar themes. The only flaw in the novel is the prolonged and neatly-resolved ending.
The movie rights for The Dry were brought by American actress Reese Witherspoon. Her production company Pacific Standard recently produced TV mini-series ‘Big Little Lies’ which was based on a novel by famous Australian author Liane Moriarty.