If you’re reading a crime novel set in a small Australian country town you can be sure of a few things: the story will take place against a harsh, unforgiving natural landscape; there will be a bevy of local characters with secrets to hide–from hard-drinking farmers to small town gossips; everyone will know everyone in town and there will be a couple of long standing feuds; and there will be something bad that happened in the past which is somehow connected to this latest crime. That’s not to say that these books aren’t a pleasure to read, I just often see this pattern.
Perhaps that’s why it took me so long to pick up The Dry by Jane Harper. It was the book on everyone’s lips in 2016, winning rave reviews from critics and racing up the bestsellers chart. Booksellers and book lovers embraced this debut and you would have had to be living under a rock to not have heard about it. It has also been optioned for the screen by Reese Witherspoon. Even now, The Dry is still picking up accolades, the recent being Jane Harper winning the British Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger award for the best crime novel of the year.
My paperback edition of The Dry is dripping with favourable quotes from reviewers on the back, front and inside of the book. As a reader, when I see all this praise for a book it really heightens my expectations. So at first when I started reading The Dry, I was a little bit disappointed. The writing was good but the story didn’t grip me. I even put it aside and read another book before coming back again. But somewhere along the line the narrative, the characters and the description reeled me in. The Dry started off as a slow-burner and then gathered pace before roaring to the finish line.
Set in the drought stricken country town of Kiewarra, The Dry sees Federal Police investigator Aaron Falk return to his hometown for the funeral of his former best friend Luke Hadler. It appears that the pressures of the long drought have driven Luke to murder his wife Karen and six-year-old son Billy before killing himself. Aaron had been driven out of town twenty years earlier by the mysterious death of a teenage girl and is drawn reluctantly into the current investigation by Luke Hadler’s parents. Without giving too much away, many questions are raised: Is Luke Hadler guilty of killing his family? What is his motive? And if not Luke, then who else in town had a vendetta against the family? And how is this all connected to the drowning death of Ellie Deacon twenty years ago?
What ensues is a classic whodunit with plenty of possible suspects thrown into the mix. The mystery is what kept me reading. I’m usually pretty good at guessing the ending of books of this genre but I was very much surprised by where the plot ended up.
There were plenty of things I liked about The Dry. Jane Harper’s writing really brought the heat, dust and hopelessness that accompany a drought to life. She sketched characters’ physical descriptions with a deft hand: “He was shorter than Falk and built like a boxer, with curls cut close to his scalp. His skin was Mediterranean olive, but his accent was pure country Australia. He had a lift to his eyes that made him look like he was smiling even when he wasn’t.”
The Dry is a great effort by a debut novelist but I think all the hype made me expect a little more. I felt that I didn’t really get to know the main character Aaron Falk even though his point-of-view takes up most of the narrative. There’s a line in the book where Falk admits to holding people at arm’s length and I feel that as a reader I was held at arm’s length from really getting to know some of the characters. I also don’t feel the flashbacks went deep enough for me to get to know other characters like Luke and Ellie. The flashbacks showed small snapshots of time, people and place but I would have liked them to be more fleshed out so I felt more for the characters rather than the author using these snippets to move the plot along. I feel like I should have cared more as a reader about characters like Falk, Luke and Ellie. But that’s just me.
Overall, I enjoyed reading The Dry but it didn’t completely live up to all the hype for me. Perhaps my expectations were just too high. I’m very much interested in reading Jane Harper’s second novel Forces of Nature and seeing how she has grown as an author.
Verdict: The Dry is a slow burner.
Have you read The Dry? What did you think? Do you think too much hype about a book can colour your reading of it?