Force of Nature by Jane Harper (2018)

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.

The Dry by Jane Harper (2016)

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.