This book had won a range of prizes by the time I got to reading it: Australia Indie Book and Indie Debut of the Year 2017; Sunday Times Crime Book of the Year; CWA Gold Dagger. It even became the Radio 2 Book Club Choice. I think I read somewhere that film rights have been optioned.
It was therefore with some high hopes I opened it and the opening Prologue was promising: the town of Kiewarra was suffering from an interminable drought, farms were faltering and crops and livestock failing and
the drought had left the flies spoiled for choice that summer. They sought out unblinking eyes and sticky wounds as the farmers of Kiewarra leveled their rifles at skinny livestock… The finds that day were unusual, though. Smaller and with a smoothness to the flesh. Not that it mattered. They were the same where it counted. The glassy eyes. The wet wounds.
The body in the clearing was the freshest. It took the flies slightly longer to discover the two in the farmhouse, despite the front door swinging open like an invitation. Those that ventured beyond the initial offering in the hallway were rewarded with another, this time in the bedroom. This one was smaller, but less engulfed by competition.
There is a terseness and economy and clear simplicity to the prose here, which runs throughout the novel and its depictions of the ravages caused by the drought is powerful and evocative. The novel is set in an emotional as well as a literal tinderbox.
At its heart, this novel is not one but two tightly woven narratives centered around the friendship between Aaron Falk and Luke Hadley. As children, they had suffered to horror of the death of their friend Ellie Deacon, and subsequent suspicions falling on them; as men, Hadley, his wife and son were discovered dead and shot – apparently by Luke Hadley’s own hand. Aaron Falk – who by this point is a Federal Investigator – is persuaded or coerced into helping to look into their deaths.
The two cases slowly unravel: the present day one, in a fairly traditional police procedural way, albeit Falk’s involvement being informal; the past death, through a series of flashback embedded into the present day case. The use of the flashbacks feels organic and very cinematic: as characters are discussing something, we’ll slip into the past and see the conversations being discussed play out in front of our eyes.
The actual investigation into the Hadley family’s death is, actually, rather pedestrian: a lead is discovered, investigated, resolved and abandoned; another lead emerges – sometimes a little too conveniently – and the process continues. Old enmities are rekindled through the investigation; new friends grow. There is a satisfying but not terribly shocking resolution. One thing I was glad about: whilst the deaths were without question violent, we only got glimpses of that violence. Unlike some other (maybe Nordic) crime writers, Harper did not revel in or dwell in it.
What sets the novel apart from the basic procedural is the intertwining of the two cases, which was meticulously done, although I did feel that Ellie Deacon was sidelined a little, and the depictions of the small town tensions. The incident between Gretchen – another old friend – and Falk in the Centenary Park where the “the self-appointed spokeswoman of the anxious mothers’ group” challenges Falk and the dumping of industrial quantities of shit over Falk’s car – “At least it’s animal. Mostly. I think.” – were particularly well managed and balanced between humour and pathos. Other scenes, particularly Falk’s flirtation with Gretchen, are a little less successful and more self-conscious.
Harper’s writing throughout is terse and it is a novel in which no word feels wasted. There is a journalistic quality to it.
It was a hugely enjoyable book – and certainly an impressive debut novel – but I’m not quite sure that it lives up to all the hype it has garnered. I shall, however, be looking out for Force of Nature, the follow up novel.
Publisher: Little Brown
Date: 12th January 2017