I’ve reached a point where I don’t look for new contemporary writers of crime fiction. Because there are so many other things I want to read, because I have enough authors I know I can rely on, because I have picked up too many books that haven’t lived up to the promises they made, and because there are many trends in crime fiction that I don’t like at all.
The idea that I might read this book crept up on me, because I saw and heard it praised in many places for the best of reasons, and because it sounded like the kind of book I used to read a lot and suspected I would still like. It broke my defences. I saw a copy in my local bookshop, I picked it up. I liked what I saw, I was intrigued by the possibilities it presented, and so the book came home.
I’m very glad that it did.
Jane Harper is a British born journalist who lives and works in Melbourne, Australia, and she has written a first novel that would be only too credible as the story lying behind a dramatic headline: Luke Hadler has shot his wife and young child, and then turned his gun on himself at their farm near the country town of Kiewarra, some way north-west of Melbourne.
The police from Clyde, the nearest big town believed that was exactly what had happened. Australia was suffering its worst drought for many, many years and the farm, like others in the area, had been struggling financially. The case was closed, but the mother of the dead man refused point blank to believe that her son would have been capable of what the police told her that he had done.
She called her son’s friend, Aaron Falk, who she knew was a federal police officer working in fraud and financial crime, and she asked him to come to the funeral. Aaron might not have come otherwise. He and Luke had been best friend at high school, but they had only been in touch sporadically since Aaron and his father had been hounded out of the town.
After the funeral, Mrs Hadler explained her concerns and asked him to look into the case for her.
He couldn’t say no, and though he had thought he had just heard a mother’s inability to come to terms with what had happened, when he looked at the evidence available he found that he agreed with her. Then he discovered that newly appointed local sergeant, Greg Raco, felt the same way, and they agreed to work together, unofficially.
They found facts much to suggest that Luke may have not pulled the trigger on his wife and child, or on himself. But how to prove it, and how to uncover the real story?
The telling of this story set in the present day is set against another story set in the past; a story of the events that lead to Aaron and his father leaving the town for that city some twenty years earlier. That was wonderfully effective, and the flow of information was beautifully controlled. I wondered to what degree the two stories might be linked and I asked questions about the guilt or innocence of Luke Handler and about the reliability of Aaron Falk.
I knew what I wanted to believe; but I wasn’t sure that I could.
The town of Kiewarra was set in open country, it was surrounded by farmland, and yet it felt claustrophobic. Outsiders would always be different, no matter how long they lived there and people were quick to judge but slow to forget. Aaron found one old friend who was pleased to see him, but everyone else he knew from his days in the town wanted him gone, and some of them would go to great lengths to make their point.
The drought had increased tension in the town, and the crime and the stirring of old memories raised it to a point where surely something had to break.
The town, the people who lived there, the things that happened, were all so richly drawn; and it was horribly believable.
The story kept moving, the plot never faltered, and the author missed nothing. She held me in the moment, she held me in the place, and she had a wonderful understanding of what details were important, of what it was important to say.
I couldn’t work out the solution and I was held to the very last page, because the final act wasn’t simply a way of ending the story, it was as much part of the story as what had come before.
I love that this book was as much a story of a community in a particular time and place as crime story; and that it didn’t feel tied to present day crime writing trends, that it could have sat as well alongside the writers I wrote years ago – I’m thinking particularly of P D James and Ruth Rendell – as it would alongside more recently .
I’ve seen comparisons to Tana French, and although I don’t think this book is in that class, I can’t say that they’re wrong.
What I can say is that I have found a new writer to add to my very short list of ‘must read’ contemporary crime novelists.