Flies buzz over congealing pools of blood in a Victorian farmhouse. Karen lies dead in the hallway, her little boy in the bedroom where he’d tried to hide. A baby wails from her cot in another room. Out in a paddock, Karen’s husband, Luke, sprawls in the back of his ute, head blasted, his shotgun pointed upwards between his legs. To the little town of Kiewarra, this self-evident murder-suicide is another symptom of the prolonged drought that is driving farmers bankrupt and closing down the shops.
Into this Dimboola-noir setting, Luke’s best schoolfriend, Aaron Falk, drives up from Melbourne for the family funeral. He can’t wait to get out again. Twenty years earlier as a 16-year-old, Falk and his dad had fled Kiewarra. Ellie Deacon, one of his and Luke’s gang, had been found drowned in the river, her pockets weighted with stones. Falk had been fishing further up the river. Luke had provided him with an alibi. Few believed it, least of all Ellie’s father. Falk himself always wondered where Luke had been. Who was providing an alibi for whom?
Yet Falk can’t escape yet, despite the mounting hostility marshalled by the Deacons. He’s now in the federal police, chasing white-collar crime. Luke’s parents beg him to investigate where the local coppers have left off, to explain how their son could or could not have committed this atrocity. And so it begins, small clues leading to a surprising conclusion.
The Dry is Melbourne journalist Jane Harper’s first book, and sees her heading into the Peter Temple class of Australian crime fiction. It won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript – how it hadn’t found a publisher is a mystery in itself. It’s since been sold into 20 territories, and it’s compulsive reading.
Harper steadily builds an intriguing cast of characters in the tinder-dry town. Among the living: the pale and introverted Falk, smart local station sergeant Raco, the bluff publican, the vengeful Deacon and his oafish nephew. Among the dead: the arrogant Luke, the widely respected Karen, and most poignantly of all, the drowned rebel Ellie. If the final showdown in the bush is a little unbelievable to us city types, it’s been an intellectual thrill getting there. And in Aaron Falk we’ve been given a compelling and gritty new detective. Chasing fraud for the feds should provide plenty of sequels. JF
Macmillan, 352pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 11, 2016 as "Jane Harper, The Dry ". Subscribe here.