Aaron Falk, a police detective from Melbourne, returns to his boyhood home of drought-stricken Kiewarra for the funeral of the family of Luke Hadler, his boyhood mate. Apparently Luke had blown his head off with his shotgun after first killing his wife Karen & their son. Twenty years before, Aaron’s father had taken his son and fled to the capital, pursued by Mal Deacon, the father of Luke’s & Aaron’s teenaged friend Ellie, who seemed to have drowned herself, leaving a note with the word ‘Falk’ written on it. Later, in a book Karen had borrowed from the library, Falk finds a note with the word ‘Grant’ & his own phone number. Grant is the name of Mal’s nephew, now Aaron’s principal persecutor. Jane Harper’s employing two ambiguous notes as clues brings out the strengths & the weaknesses of The Dry: telling economy of force, clues obscured with the simplest of misdirection, & ultimately a villainous plot too complicated to work in real life. The last need not be fatal artistically – I’ve read The Likeness four times – but it is that the more I learnt of the villain’s motive the less persuaded I became. After finishing a five star, you want to read it again, sometimes immediately, sometimes after it’s had time to settle. With The Dry, @ about 48 hours the fiction dissolved & the psychological improbabilities multiplied. As is common now, we’re given bits & pieces of the backstory in italics. Especially striking was this gem. Nerving up to do the deed, we’re told the villain was ‘whispering up a silent feverish prayer’ & as the victim approaches, the villain ‘sent up a silent prayer of thanks.‘ I nearly fell out of bed. Which god was the villain praying to – Kali? Except for Thugs & members of ISIS, who ever prays before committing serial murder? I went back over the longest colloquy the detective has with the eventually found out villain, and discovered no suggestion @ all that the killer was the kind of person who might perpetrate such an atrocity. Leaving aside religious maniacs, we find such murders are either accidents such as a robbery that ‘goes wrong’ or committed by thrill-seeking sociopaths as in ‘Funny Games’.
Many other psychological & spiritual shortcomings popped up on reflection. Even given that Mal is a senile nasty old idiot and Grant a mean drunk, their continued persecution of Aaron Falk is ultimately inexplicable & given the drought, filling his car with liquid shit a waste of water. Some of the clues seemed very arbitrary and based too much on coincidence – do all Australians choose shotguns with identical bores to blow away bunnies? A more spiritually & emotionally satisfying book would have made the tragic Ellie the principal character. That we don’t feel she haunts Aaron’s memory betrays his lack of empathy & failure to love. True, 17 year-old boys don’t do relationships – a good reason not to use their POVs if you’re seeking emotional depth. (A fault shared by J. D. Salinger & John Green BTW.)
Settings & descriptive passages, tho’, are excellent. The Dry reminded me constantly of Sharon Bolton’s Little Black Lies. Both movingly depict small communities under great stress & characters dealing with grief & unresolved problems from their pasts. In both the very landscape becomes a principal actor. As I’m a sailor not a farmer the Falkland Islands resonated better for me than the outback of the State of Victoria, tho’ I grew up in Texas & live in Iowa so I have some notion of what a drought & a farm crisis feel like, (I’d like to have listened the the audio for the voices – Australians basically strike me like Texans who talk like Bostonians – wearers of big hats who pronounce ‘khaki’ like what you use to start your ‘cah’! (I once saw the word spelled that way on a panel beater’s shop in Melbourne.) Perhaps Jane Harper should switch to nonfiction – I could imagine her in the same class as John McPhee. But as a fiction writer she doesn’t come near authors such as Tana French or Sharon Bolton, whose characters you love & care for & who raise moral & spiritual issues of complexity & poignancy. But The Dry ranks as a solid four-star, an excellent one time read. Most four-stars I find fast one-time reads; this one is slower & such a good read as to be worth the effort – once. Whilst I’ve heard future exploits are envisioned for Aaron Falk; I fear I shall be otherwise engaged.
2 thoughts on “Review of The Dry, by Jane Harper”
Nice review, Bill. I read this and felt much the same way. Very enjoyable, but not as memorable as I’d have liked.
It seems so unfair that publishers promote some books aggressively that are no better than many that pass unnoticed.