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 another, to form this land as it lay in front of him now. A place where rivers flooded without rain and seashells fossilized a thousand miles from water and men who left their cars found themselves walking to their deaths.
Jane Harper writes consistently thoughtful, gripping mysteries. Her third and latest book, The Lost Man, isn’t shelved in the mystery section at my library (but I think it should be.) Taking a break from her Agent Aaron Falk series, Harper keeps the setting in Australia, this time in the sweltering Christmas time Outback of Queensland. Once again, she creates a vivid portrait of an unforgiving landscape and, in this outing, a seriously dysfunctional family.
The Bright family owns a lot of land, giant cattle ranches split between the three brothers, Nathan, Cameron, and Bub. Vast distances separate their homesteads – a three hour’s drive from Nathan’s to Cameron’s, which was the original family home. The land is rather bleak and Harper once again does a wonderful job of situating her story into a very atmospheric setting. The book opens with a gruesome death – middle brother and golden boy Cameron’s body is found dehydrated and heat-stricken in the meager shadow of a local landmark, the Stockman’s Grave. His car is later found fully stocked with water and supplies and in good condition but miles away from his body. No one in their right mind would walk away from safety into the extremely dangerous temperatures of the Outback. Was it suicide? What had his state of mind been lately? Little by little, eldest brother Nathan, a divorced dad and black sheep of the family, starts peeling back the layers of the mystery. In doing so he has to relive and confront some very ugly truths about his family’s past.
I read this quickly, in just a few days, and when I had to put it down I longed to pick it back up as soon as possible. I found that Harper has a wonderful way of ending a chapter with a little revelation or a question so that I felt compelled to keep reading. In spite of the relative isolation of the setting, Harper gives the reader plenty of characters who act just a little bit shady and may have the motive to commit murder. I confess I didn’t see the solution coming. While the family dynamics at play here may seem just a shade over the top, I felt the characters were credible enough for me to enjoy the story. Nathan in particular was a compelling character, trying to break free from the mistakes of his past and the walls he’d put up in the meantime. If you’ve not read Harper before this standalone would make a great place to start. (Although there is a fun little Easter egg connection to her first book, The Dry.) Just know that she’s more of a slow burn kind of author with great attention to detail rather than a breakneck pace kind of writer. I really liked this one. 4 stars.
As usual my reading pace is way ahead of my blog posting, so here are some quick mini reviews as I try to catch up!
Force of Nature by Jane Harper (Aaron Falk #2.) A solid, enjoyable, page-turning mystery. Federal Agent Aaron Falk and his partner Carmen are investigating money laundering when their informant goes missing in the Australian bush on a company-sponsored wilderness retreat. As she did in her debut, The Dry, Harper excels at atmosphere, with the dense mountain foliage and isolation of the setting practically becoming a character in the novel itself. I like that we get a little more of a glimpse into Aaron Falk’s past, specifically more of a focus on his fraught relationship with his late father. But there is still a lot to learn about Falk, and I’m still curious. I also think the light glimmer of a spark with his partner is intriguing. The specifics of the mystery plot are well-written, although perhaps one might have to suspend one’s disbelief a bit to buy the circumstances in which the woman goes missing. If you can do that, you will enjoy the second in this series. I look forward to the next one! Four Stars.
Mr. Fox by Helen Oyeyemi. How to describe this weird, magical book? I read this in early April for my book group, although we were just able to meet last weekend to discuss. We all loved it. A riff on the Bluebeard fairy tale, if I had to summarize it briefly I’d say that Mr. Fox, an author, and his muse, the fictional (or is she?) Mary, write stories back and forth to one another. Mary wants Mr. Fox to stop writing misogynistic stories about women. Mr. Fox’s real-life wife, Daphne, is jealous of Mary and despairs about her marriage until she, too, begins writing herself into the story. I think that this book is about two things: the role of women in fiction and the challenges of vulnerable and equal romantic relationships. I’m not sure which one Oyeyemi is really emphasizing. But what resonated with me more was the love story between Mr. Fox and Daphne, and I have to say that the end left me with hope. This is one of those books that still perplexes me and challenges me, and I’d like to reread it again someday and try to puzzle it out some more. Four-and-a-half Stars.
Have you read either of these? Do they pique your interest?
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.