I heard about this Australian mystery novel by way of Fiction Fan’s terrific review back in March of this year. When she says she can’t find anything to criticize about a book, I take notice! I have to say that I agree with her assessment: The Dry is a well-crafted, absorbing, thoughtfully written mystery, and I’m glad to see that there’s another book coming out featuring Federal Agent Aaron Falk!
Set in the drought-stricken small farming town of Kiewarra, the book opens with gruesome descriptions of blowflies not discriminating between a carcass and a corpse. Something truly horrific has happened. Aaron Falk is reluctantly back in his hometown, a town he and his father were driven away from twenty years earlier. He is there to attend the funeral of his high school friend Luke. Everyone thinks that the drought and money problems made Luke snap and kill himself, his wife, and their young son. Baby Charlotte was the only survivor, because as Falk grimly observes, “thirteen-month-old don’t make good witnesses.” Luke’s parents, a second family to Aaron when he was younger, want him to quietly look into the investigation, despite Aaron’s protests that he works on the financial side of police work now. Falk agrees to stay in Kiewarra for a few days and look over their accounts, partly out of a sense of guilt about something that happened when he and Luke were teenagers.
In flashbacks the reader discovers that Aaron’s and Luke’s friend Ellie Deacon supposedly drowned herself in the town’s river (a river that is now bone dry thanks tot he drought.) Luke and Aaron gave one another alibis, but we learn that many in the town didn’t believe that the boys didn’t have something to do with her death. Tension is thick all these years later, and Falk is the target of many unpleasant and threatening interactions upon his return to town. So not only is the reader tracking what really happened to Luke and his family, but we are also trying to solve the mystery of what really happened to Ellie all those years ago. Harper fills the story with lots of red herrings and good characterization. I especially liked the new sheriff in town, Raco, who, as a relative newcomer to Kiewarra, develops a nice rapport with Falk and helps him in the unofficial investigation.
When the mystery was solved I wanted to smack myself in the head for not figuring it out sooner. It all made such perfect sense. But Harper’s deft sleight of hand obscured the solution for me. She skillfully portrayed a community on edge and a devastated natural landscape that would test the most emotionally stable person. Best of all, I’ve found an interesting, even-keeled detective with a lot of potential. There’s much room for the reader to discover more about Falk and his past. We know a lot about what happened to Aaron right before he was forced out of town but we know almost nothing of what transpired all the years in between. I look forward to revisiting him next year when Harper’s new book comes out.