The Dry - Jane Harper ***
Jane Harper's The Dry makes great use of its remote Australian farming community locations as the place for a tense thriller. Taking place during one of the worst droughts in the region's history, making life difficult for everyone and adding to existing community tensions, the murder of a young family on a farm in Kiewarra and the return of a former resident run out of town some time ago, could potentially be a spark that could set the whole community ablaze.
Except, there's something not quite right about the circumstances of the killing of the Hadler family. To all outward appearances it seems like the father Luke Hadler has returned home, shot his wife and son, leaving only the youngest baby daughter alive, before returning to his car and shooting himself in the head. Luke's mother and father invite their son's old friend Aaron Falk to the funeral, hoping he might look more deeply into the background of their son's death. An investigator of financial crime in Melbourne, Falk only agrees to look into it further after finding that the town's chief of police also has suspicions that things don't add up.
Falk however could prove to be more of a hindrance than a help to the investigation. He and his father were driven out of town twenty years ago over suspected involvement in the death of Ellie Dawson, a young local girl found drowned in the river. Although Aaron had nothing to do with it, both he and Luke used to be friends with the girl, and Luke's father knows that they both covered up their whereabouts at the time of the girl's death, each backing the other in a made-up alibi. Luke's father wants to know if there is something in that shared secret that might point to a reason for the death of his son and his family. Unfortunately, Luke's father is not the only one who knows of that old lie; Ellie's family have also had their suspicions about Falk, and they're not a bit pleased (to say the least) to see him back in town.
There's no faulting Jane Harper's ability to turn this situation into a tense murder-mystery investigation, and the location during a drought in the Australian outback sets it apart from other such thrillers, but essentially The Dry is still very much a conventional example of the genre. Aaron Falk is the unwelcome outsider poking his nose into the goings-on of a small community where the people all have something to hide; whether it's secret love affairs, old disputes over land or precarious financial and business situations made worse by the worsening weather conditions. And in such a remote and open place where people keep to themselves, it's no wonder it's hard to make alibis stick. Assuming there is more to the Hadler family's death, almost anyone could be the killer. As is the convention then, suspicion alternately falls on one person and then another.
Harper attempts to provide a wider view on the investigation. There's the backstory of Aaron and Luke's childhood and the death of Ellie Dawson, which you also expect to find linked to the latest murders, or at least resolved as Aaron Falk returns to the town with a fresh new perspective. Rather than have everything related to the investigators, the author also makes good use of cinematic-type flashbacks in italics to relate much of the backstory. With the worsening weather conditions and characters exhibiting suspicious behaviour, hesitations, nervous glances and just plain outright hostility, the whole combination of elements does manage to create a tense pressure cooker of an environment. There's not much here however that is all that original or new to the genre..
When you've built up a head of steam however, you have the manner of releasing it to consider, and it's here that The Dry either delivers the goods in a thrilling and surprising conclusion or it falls back into conventional staged revelations. There's no doubt that the author delivers satisfying answers here in a dramatic fashion, but depending on what you expect from a thriller, that might not be enough. While the third-person flashback revelations prove to be a good device to provide a wider perspective, they become surprisingly superfluous the moment the truth is revealed. Worse than superfluous, they even start to feel gratuitous.
Why, once that revelation is made do we need to go about dredging up the horror of the murders all over again in even greater gruesome detail? Well, because we expect answers obviously, but there's a sense that on top of the drama unleashed at the finale, we get rather more detailed explanations than is necessary, and a lot more unpleasantness. If you want satisfying conclusion that isn't distorted with needless twists, rest assured however that The Dry provides a conclusion that leaves no room for any doubts about what really occurred. With the contrivance of the late discovery of a diary on top of everything else however, you get the feeling that some answers that you could easily have worked out for yourself might have been better left unsaid.
The Dry by Jane Harper is published in paperback by Little, Brown on 25 May 2017. It's available now in eBook format.
The Dry - Jane Harper ***