Life In A Barren Place

Jane Harper’s debut novel The Dry (2017) is a finely-plotted murder mystery set in the smallest of small towns, Kiewarra, in Australia.  Not having lived in a microtown, I cannot vouch for the commonly held belief that, in such a place, “everybody knows everybody’s secrets,” because such a belief is usually found to be held in the world of fiction alone.  Kiewarra is not Twin Peaks.  It’s closer to Spencer Tracy’s Black Rock, but it’s not even that.  It is impossible while reading Harper’s story to belt out a Dale Cooper-like laugh at the “damn fine coffee” served in Kiewarra’s main pub, or even view what we are reading through the all-too-smug looking glass of David Lynch’s comedic satire.

The truth that Harper drives us to in The Dry is that we don’t know everybody’s secrets, even when we think we do.  Secrets are held by all of us for our own personal benefit or to protect someone else.  Even a “bad” secret may hold some positive benefit that we do not wish to share with the world at large because, as Harper also reminds us, it is just as true that other people don’t understand the weight or the importance of the secrets someone else carries.  We all think we do understand.  We think we know.  But we don’t.

A secret’s weight can drive us away from the place of our origin, but it can also drive us back.  These two things have compelled Melbourne Federal Inspector Aaron Falk to return to Kiewarra for the funeral of his best friend, Luke Hadler, who has apparently killed his wife and son in a grisly murder-suicide.  Hadler and Falk had been two of a quartet of friends from high school two decades before.  The girls they knew have all grown up and reached mid-life, marrying their husbands (or not) and having their kids and trying to reconcile the twisted turns they took in life with the straight, dusty, little-town streets of Kiewarra they see before them.  All but one.  Shy, quiet, introspective Ellie Deacon died under mysterious circumstances during those high school years, and Aaron Falk was, and still is, suspected in her death.  Falk’s alibi in the crime was provided by the now-deceased Luke Hadler; so when the newly-appointed Sheriff of Kiewarra, Raco, asks Falk to help him investigate the murders, Falk does so as both lawman and suspect, at least in the eyes of the town.

Arching over all of the inhabitants is the ever-present Australian heat and the ongoing drought of two years that threatens to sap every bit of life the citizens have managed to inject into the place.  Harper lets us know immediately how hot Kiewarra is, but wisely and slowly she builds up our sense of how oppressive the town is, how dangerous it could be to the body, and how threatening it already is to the spirit.  In this way, Kiewarra acts much like the relentless, unforgiving daylight of the Alaskan town in the movie Insomnia, and Harper’s evocation of the place provides many examples of her best writing.

In characterizing the people of Kiewarra, on the other hand, Harper falls a bit short.  Given the reality of life in daily heat, there are plenty of opportunities to exploit short tempers and repressed anger, but Harper passes  the majority of those opportunities by.  Most people are going to like Raco.  I, myself, grew fond of Ellie Deacon in the many flashback scenes we have in the book.  But we don’t get many individual strokes of characterization within the critical roles of Falk or of his would-be girlfriend, Gretchen, or even the departed Luke Hadler.  I offer two explanations to account for the lack:  one is that The Dry is a debut novel.  Harper will surely become more accomplished at characterization the more she writes; the other is that the lack of characterization serves a small but necessary function in the misdirection of the story.  We don’t see Aaron Falk clearly as a character because we don’t need to.  Harper begins with him and carries him throughout the tale, but she is at pains to make us see that, ultimately, the story is not just about him.  It is about everyone else in the town, also.  It’s about what they think they know, and what they don’t.

The strength of The Dry lies in its plotting.  Harper is terrific at dropping subtle little Hitchcockian hints about who the murderer could be, and at least two of those hints are downright scary.  You’ll be turning the pages faster and faster as you go.  By the time you reach the end, you’ll be marveling at two things:  how the clues of the mystery all fit together, and how the barrenness of the landscape has helped to shape, and to mirror, the desolate lives of all the people who live there.

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