Flatiron, 336 pages, $15.99 (c2016)
Australian author Jane Harper has written one of the best mysteries I’ve read in a long time. She combines a great, human story with evocative writing. “The Dry” depicts drought-ridden Kiewarra, a small town a few hours outside of Melbourne, so well that you would be advised to have a big, cold glass of water nearby as you read.
Federal police officer Aaron Falk returns to Kiewarra after an absence of twenty years to attend the funeral of his former best friend, Luke Hadler. Everyone is saying that Luke shot his wife and young son, then killed himself, but Luke’s parents believe in their hearts that their son could not possibly have done that. The fact that Aaron is with the feds’ financial investigation unit doeesn’t dissuade the parents from asking Aaron for his help. In payment of past kindnesses, Aaron unofficially agrees to “look into” the deaths.
Some of the story is told in flashbacks to when Aaron still lived in Kiewarra as a teenager. What Harper does so well is delineate the complex relationships that teenagers can have with one another, given the wild hormones, self-consciousness, and secrecy of that age. Aaron and Luke grew up together. Their twosome is joined in their teens by Gretchen Schoner and Ellie Deacon, first friends and then potential girlfriends. When sixteen-year-old Ellie, Aaron’s crush, is found drowned in the nearby river, already bad relations with her family become worse. Both Aaron and his father are accused in turn of having murdered her when their last name, “Falk,” is found written on a piece of paper in Ellie’s possession. Soon the Falks leave town.
Harper draws her characters with minimum fuss but with great impact. Although various people represent town stereotypes, they feel real, not cartoonish. Working from nothing, Aaron and Sergeant Greg Raco, newly appointed to what was supposed to have been the quiet post of Kiewarra, try to piece together Luke’s last day and what might have driven him to the massacre. They find some vague inconsistencies at the death scene, including the fact that baby Charlotte’s life was spared.
Gretchen still lives in town and Aaron glimpses the changes that have come to Kiewarra through her eyes. Not least of the changes is the disappearance of the river, a victim of the drought. Kiewarra is a dying town. The remaining residents are hoping somehow to struggle through until the drought breaks, but no one can assure them that it will break in time.
Hate follows Aaron, who is still blamed for Ellie’s death, even by people who do not know him. There is a simmering lynch mob whose attitude is not helped by the deadly hot weather. Even with the backing of Raco, Gretchen, and a couple of other worthwhile citizens, Aaron needs to tread carefully, which makes it hard to investigate the deaths. Inexplicably, too, Aaron finds he needs to consider if the Hadlers’ deaths are somehow related to Ellie’s long ago.
Harper doesn’t veer from her clear storytelling style. There is a strong sense of you-are-there that comes across in her writing. And when she resolves all the storylines, you can hear all the “aha”s echoing around the world.
In honor of the recent release of the paperback version of "The Dry," this is my first 2018 MBTB star!