The Dry by Jane Harper

the-dryA drought is devastating Australia, nowhere worse than Kiewarra. Crops are dying, there is no food for livestock… and for Luke Hadler, it seems enough is enough. He took his shotgun, walked into his home and shot his wife and young son at point blank range. Leaving his baby daughter alive, he turns the gun upon himself. Another tragedy of the drought. Apparently…

Called back to the town by Luke’s father, federal investigation Aaron Falk, Luke’s childhood friend, is asked to take a look at the crime scene – just to tie up some loose ends. But it seems that there are questions to be answered. Did Luke really kill his family?

But Aaron has secrets of his own. When he left town with his father many years ago, it was in the aftermath of a young girl’s death. Aaron was accused of the crime and Luke gave him a false alibi. But was Luke alibi-ing himself? And has the past come back for vengeance?

Thanks to Michael Jecks for the nod for this one – he reviewed The Dry over at Writerly Witterings recently and the review caught my eye. Admittedly, with my crime nerd hat on, it caught my eye for his comment that while he really enjoyed the book, it broke one of the Detection Club rules, but it caught my eye nonetheless. And while I won’t say which rule it breaks (although it’s not a Chinaman in a secret passage), I think it breaks it in a fairly minor way – in fact, I had to ask Michael what he meant, as I didn’t really notice it.

After a stunningly evocative prologue, describing the scene of carnage vividly without going into any detail – take a look on the “Look Inside” on the Amazon page – the tale then kicks off with Aaron returning to town, only to find a community still angry about his involvement, or suspected involvement with the events of the past.

The narrative structure is a clever one – the tale is told from Aaron’s point of view, but it switches into italics for someone else’s, whether it is the events of the past or simply someone being interviewed by Aaron. Rather than just hearing the answers to Aaron’s questions, we get to relive the events. Later on, as we discovered what actually happened, we get one particularly impressive section as the events in the farmhouse are replayed. It’s a structure that keeps the story fresh and moving along and neatly sidesteps any potential issue of exposing the killer from their own thoughts, a trick that Jecks is a master of.

And it’s worth mentioning that it sidesteps some clichés of this sort of story. The local police (who are competent) are already investigating an inconsistency at the scene of the crime. Most books would leave the “Luke (probably) didn’t do it” twist for at least 1/3 of the way through, but here, there’s no sense of that at all. Clearly there’s going to be doubt as to what happened, so let’s get that out of the way straight off the bat. I liked that approach – other authors could learn from it.

And also, under the strong writing, is a mystery plot that impresses. This isn’t a thriller where the killer is picked at random at the end, or where there’s only one suspect – it’s a proper whodunit, with hints along the way, if not clues, to the big picture. The modern day mystery is a clever one, but while the past story is intriguing, at the end of the day I did feel a bit “is that it?” at the final revelation. There were at least two other resolutions that I thought would carry a little more weight that the one provided, so that one felt a bit flat, despite a very well-written final section of that part.

I did say that this year, I was going to focus mostly on Golden Age, but I’m glad for this diversion. A modern mystery that is both well-written and well-plotted, this was a real find. Highly Recommended.

The Dry is out now from Little, Brown. Many thanks for the review copy.

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