The outback noir of Jane Harper

Photo by Casey Schackow on Unsplash

I don’t usually bother with big screen adaptations of books I’ve enjoyed but I’ll be making an exception for The Dry, due out in early 2020 and based on the outback crime novel of the same name by Jane Harper.

The Dry describes the return of Australian Federal Police detective Aaron Falk to his hometown of Kiewarra in rural Victoria for the funeral of Luke Hadler — Falk’s best friend when they were growing up, who has apparently committed suicide after murdering his wife and child.

As you might expect, things are not what they seem and Falk is persuaded to look into the case by Hadler’s grieving parents, desperate to clear their son’s name. Complicating matters is the animosity of the town’s residents, who ran Falk out of town twenty years earlier after suspecting him of the murder of his former girlfriend, Ellie Deacon.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Dry and polished it off in a couple of days. But it’s not a book that bears a lot of detailed scrutiny. The plot is fairly unremarkable and it pushes your suspension of disbelief to have the resolution of both the intertwined mysteries — the Hadler family tragedy and Ellie’s death — hinge on quirky ways of reading mysterious notes.

As far as the characters are concerned, you have the oafish town bullies, the best friends with dark secrets, the damsels in distress, the faithful sidekicks, and so on. The most fully fleshed out character is Falk himself, who is given plenty of personal demons to confront and ghosts from his past to lay to rest. Funnily enough, this carefully developed personal history merely emphasises just how stereotypical a detective he is. Lonely, troubled, with something to prove. You know the deal.

What elevates The Dry beyond the usual whodunnit, though, is its sense of place. For me, the novel’s real interest lies in Harper’s sketching of small town bigotry and the way minor disputes take on an outsize importance when a small group of people are forced to deal with each other, day in, day out.

Living in such close proximity is hard enough at the best of times but Kiewarra is a community under pressure. The dry of the title refers to a two-year-long drought, which has brought to the fore all the resentments and grudges that might otherwise have been smoothed over. Farmers are being forced to sell up, local businesses are shuttering. The general assumption before Falk starts asking questions is that financial pressures brought on by the drought were ultimately responsible for the Hadler tragedy.

This is where Harper is at her best, showing us how the Australian landscape is not simply the backdrop to but a catalyst for human violence. Put simply, the drought is slowly driving the residents of Kiewarra mad and at times it feels like this landscape is a character in its own right, one that is determined to strip away the thin veneer of civilisation and reduce these people to their basest instincts.

This conception of the landscape as having a presence all of its own — sometimes benevolent, more often malevolent, but almost always mysteriously Other — has a long history in Australian literature. It runs through the likes of David Malouf (Remembering Babylon), Joan Lindsay (Picnic at Hanging Rock), Patrick White (Voss), Henry Lawson’s short stories and plenty of others all the way back to the first settlers, who struggled to make sense of a landscape fundamentally different to what they were used to and seemingly hostile to their presence.

This sense of the landscape’s hostility to human intrusion comes through most clearly in Harper’s second novel, Force of Nature, in which Aaron Falk returns to investigate the disappearance of a key witness in a case he’s working on. The witness and four of her workmates have got lost in heavily forested mountain ranges a few hours outside Melbourne, and the bush seems to have taken against the women:

The overgrown path, the trees closing in tighter every few dozen steps. Forget what the map said, it didn’t feel right.

All around, hidden birds shrieked at each other in call and response. Beth couldn’t shake the feeling that the bushland was talking about them.

Elsewhere, we’re told

It was colder now they’d stopped moving. Quiet too, without the sounds of footfall. She could make out the chirp and squeak of invisible birds. Bree heard a rustle in the bush behind her and spun around, her thoughts plunging down a black hole and landing with a thump before the spectre of Martin Kovac.

In case you’re wondering, Martin Kovac was a notorious serial killer who despatched his victims in this very forest. What a place to choose for a hike.

To my mind, Force of Nature is Harper’s least successful book, partly because it’s so obviously influenced by Picnic at Hanging Rock and suffers in the comparison. Sure, no-one gets turned into a snake as happens in the final chapter of Joan Lindsay’s novel, but the fear of losing your humanity along with your way when you’re deep in the bush is certainly there.

More subtle is Harper’s account of the Australian outback in her third novel, The Lost Man, which is set on one of those vast cattle properties in the Queensland interior, roughly the size of a small European country. On a property that big, loneliness is as dangerous as the extreme heat.

Again, the landscape is described as having an almost supernatural presence but Harper doesn’t rely on the cheap scares of Force of Nature. The Queensland outback is not really for or against humanity. It operates on a different plane altogether, far removed from the local, time-bound concerns of those who try to eke out a living in its midst:

Nathan looked out. The sun seemed to be dropping fast in the west. In another hour the horizon would disappear into something even more endless. [. . .] He stared out. It was vast, like looking down from the edge of a cliff, and he felt a rare hint of vertigo.

At night, when the sky felt even bigger, he could almost imagine it was a million years ago and he was walking on the bottom of the sea. A million years ago when a million natural events still needed to occur, one after the other, to form this land as it lay in front of him now. A place where rivers flooded without rain and seashells fossilised a thousand miles from water and men who left their cars found themselves walking to their deaths.

Sometimes, the space almost seemed to call to Nathan. Like a faint heartbeat, insistent and persuasive.

The Lost Man is essentially a fresh draft of a story Harper has now written three times — one in which people are forced to confront their past in order to deal with a present tragedy, which has been catalysed by the landscape.

Falk is rewritten as the similarly troubled protagonist Nathan Bright, whose brother Cameron is found dead next to a mysterious tombstone under the scorching heat of the outback sun. Like Falk, Bright has been ostracised by his community after a terrible mistake he made ten years previously, and he can only solve the mystery of his brother’s apparent suicide by delving back into his family’s own dark history.

The Lost Man is far and away Harper’s best novel so far. Nathan Bright is a far more interesting character than Aaron Falk and the interplay of the past and present seems less forced. Rather than running two separate murder plotlines side by side as she did in The Dry, Harper focuses more tightly on a single mystery, bringing in the past to illuminate certain aspects of the characters’ personalities.

It feels like Harper has thrown out what didn’t work in Force of Nature and finetuned some of the more awkward sections of The Dry. But how many times will Harper be able to return to this basic set-up, and still find something interesting to say?

I wonder, too, how Harper’s writing and outback literature more generally will respond to Australia’s current climate change nightmare? Extreme heat is no longer something confined to the margins of Australian society — something that only occurs on the edge of civilisation. It is something Australians are being exposed to more regularly, in cities as well as outback townships. And when more and more people come to suffer this sort of heat, or lose their homes or lives in the attendant bushfires, how will fiction respond?

Such is the scale and regularity of these climate disasters that we may need a new ethics for writing and reading about the Australian landscape. Will we and should we care about the death of a single fictional character from extreme heat, when entire towns are being wiped off the map in reality?

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Andrew Smith

Andrew Smith

I’m an avid reader from Wellington, New Zealand. History, crime fiction, literary classic. You name it, I’ll read it. Twitter @pileobooks