Jane Harper’s second novel, like her first, has a story that could have been ripped from the headlines.
Two teams – five men and five women – set off on a corporate team-building exercise in the Australian bush. The men arrived back at base on schedule but the women didn’t. Four of them emerged hours later, and they couldn’t – or wouldn’t – explain what had become of the fifth.
Time had passed since the end of the story told in that first book. The drought had broken, winter had come, and Federal Police Agent Aaron Falk is back at work in the city, investigating financial crime. He is drawn into this story because the missing woman was the whistle-blower in a fraud case that he and his partner, Carmen Cooper, were close to breaking.
She had left a message on his phone, but the signal had been so weak that he couldn’t make out what she was saying. When he tried to make contact he found out what had happened, the local police were grateful for the information that Aaron and Carmen were able to share with them, and open to them to make investigations of their own.
They didn’t know if the disappearance was linked to the fraud investigation, if there were other factors at play, or if it was purely chance that linked one woman to two potential crimes. And they didn’t know if she had chosen to disappear, if there had been foul play within the group of five, or if there had been somebody else out there.
The story has two strands. It follows the investigation; and it looks back to see what happened when the group of women set off into the bush. That works well. The tension mounts and slowly and steadily the picture comes together of what happened on the expedition – and what had been happening before – until it is clear what was wrong in the company and how and why the woman went missing.
Things that had happened at work, things that had happened in individual lives, and things that happened in the bush were all significant.
The plotting is very well done, but it is the depiction of the landscape, the drawing and the delineation of the characters and the sheer believability of it all that made the plot so effective. Each of the five women had their own story, and their own agenda, and I can only think that whoever put the group together care for any of them. That they fell out, got lost, and failed to agree on a plan of action was not a surprise; but the consequences were.
The plot, the vividly drawn scenes and the atmosphere were more than enough to hold me at the beginning of the story, but the development of Aaron’s own story and his relationship with Carmen drew me further in and made me think about future possibilities. This all happened quite naturally as the story touched on their lives during the investigation. I came to understand how Aaron had reached a particular point in his life, I was interested in Carmen and in her story, and I liked the way their relationship developed and left open interesting possibilities for the future.
However clever, however well plotted, a crime story may be, it won’t hold me without real human interest. This book has that in abundance.
The story kept moving, and I always felt that I was in the safe hands of an author who had wonderful control of her material. She held me in the moment, she paced her revelations perfectly, and every development felt plausible.
I couldn’t work out the solution and I was held to the very last page, and I appreciate the final act was a continuation and a resolution that flowed naturally from what had come before. An ‘aha moment’ but not a ‘grand finale’.
This book has confirmed that Jane Harper belongs on my very short list of ‘must read’ contemporary crime novelists.