It begins with the blowflies, as good a symbol as any for what happens to rural areas when the weather turns stagnant, hot, and deadly. They know the smell of death and where to find it. So it’s an ominous sign when these end-time harbingers descend upon a small farm in the Australian bush outside the town of Kiewarra and find three bodies. The town is in trouble.
Jane Harper’s debut thriller, The Dry, is not in my usual reading wheelhouse. I generally don’t like books where I can feel the mechanics of the plot whirring beneath the page heading for an inevitable tidy resolution. And sure enough, The Dry heads inexorably toward such a conclusion in which red herrings are exposed and surprise twists revealed. It’s all very cinematic, (Reese Witherspoon has the production rights), and I was suitably caught off guard by the way it all wound up.
But then again, I never guess these things.
What attracts me in literature is the untidy and unfinished. The ways we find ourselves in the grip of unseen forces like history, race, and desire. The ways the land speaks in our stories and shapes our souls. The ways we find ourselves stripped of pretension, bared to the bone, and utterly dependent on an elusive, assured God.
I could see enough of that in The Dry to pick it up. As readers of Heartlands will know, tales of rural places always catch my eye, and Harper does a wonderful job of bringing the Australian backcountry to life.
Kiewarra suffers from many of the same ailments as many an American small town. Empty stores line the town street. The schools are underfunded and dependent on charitable foundations that might release a few thousands. The police force is a skeleton crew.
Aaron Falk, who returns to Kiewarra from Melbourne when a childhood friend and two members of his family turn up dead, also knows how things can curdle when the town turns against you. In Melbourne, at least, “he wasn’t watched by curious eyes that knew every last thing about him. His neighbors didn’t judge him, or harass him and spread rumors about his family….They left him alone.” (144).
Falk left as a teenager, run out of town with his father after Ellie, one of his classmates, drowned in the river (now a dried-up bed because of the drought). The name ‘Falk’ was on a note in her pocket and the town began to believe that maybe the drowning wasn’t accidental and that either of the male Falks might be the culprit.
His dad died and Falk eventually became an agent of the Australian finance intelligence unit. Now he is back in a town that didn’t want him, paying respects to his friend, Luke, who seemingly had taken a shotgun to his wife and 6-year-old son and then turned it on himself. Of course, there’s more to that story, as there is to the mystery of what happened to Ellie twenty years before. Falk gets drawn into the investigation and sticks around until both mysteries are solved.
Harper uses an unusual technique of doling out another omniscient narrator’s voice as the mystery unspools. The other voice narrates what happened in the past with rich detail. I think it works.
What really makes the book, however, is the setting and the determination to present characters that become real people. And the blowflies, who hover over everything. There’s a tale of whodunit to be told, but there are much larger stories, too. Where do you find life when everything around you becomes tinder for an inevitable fire? Where’s the river to quench the dry?