This is one assured debut. In fact, it’s hard to believe this is Jane Harper’s first novel. The writing is brilliant, it lulls you into the mystery and the atmospheric tendrils of a rural small town drowning in secrets will start to envelope you. I brought the book to a holiday in Melbourne recently, lo and behold, I had no idea that the story is centred around a small town in rural Melbourne. Oh man… the feels.
After getting a note demanding his presence, Federal Agent Aaron Falk arrives in his hometown for the first time in decades to attend the funeral of his best friend, Luke. Twenty years ago when Falk was accused of murder, Luke was his alibi. Falk and his father fled under a cloud of suspicion, saved from prosecution only because of Luke’s steadfast claim that the boys had been together at the time of the crime. But now more than one person knows they didn’t tell the truth back then, and Luke is dead.
Amid the worst drought in a century, Falk and the local detective question what really happened to Luke. As Falk reluctantly investigates to see if there’s more to Luke’s death than there seems to be, long-buried mysteries resurface, as do the lies that have haunted them. And Falk will find that small towns have always hidden big secrets.
The pace is deliberately slow-burn, aptly reflecting the dreary pace of life in a forgotten farming town wallowing in deep hurts and secrets. The prose carries a finely honed rhythm…
It wasn’t as though the farm hadn’t seen death before, and the blowflies didn’t discriminate. To them there was little difference between a carcass and a corpse.
The drought had left the flies spoiled for choice that summer. They sought out unblinking eyes and sticky wounds as the farmers of Kiewarra leveled their rifles at skinny livestock. No rain meant no feed. And no feed made for difficult decisions as the tiny town shimmered under day after day of burning blue sky.
How’s that for an opening? No over-descriptions and such purposeful words. And I felt the sweltering sun beat down on me as I read.
In all my years of reading, I always find flashbacks a necessary but laboured literary device. Harper employs the tool differently that it breathes fresh life into it. I shan’t say more, go read it and find out what I mean for yourself.
The characters are well fleshed out and their motivations well drawn. They literally live and breathe in front of me as I devoured the book. The mystery plot is masterfully constructed and cleverly wrong-foots the reader without cheap red herrings. A piece of the jigsaw is given in each chapter and they all end with a revelation that practically dares you not to turn the next page. Of course, I failed each time. The final denouement doesn’t feel cut and dry, without the typical out of the world heroics. Every scene has time to breathe and the ending has the feels and gave me the chills (and they are multiplying 😊). I can totally see a movie or a TV series adaptation with the distinctive likes of Peter Weir’s Witness (1985) or Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake (2013).
PS – My wifey didn’t think much of it in terms of the mystery and finds the Aaron Falk character not Sherlock-ish enough. She could guess who the killer was pretty early. “When someone is too helpful it only means one of two things – it is either he/she is really helpful or he/she is trying to find out more about the case” Ouch! She is right of course, but even if the who may be easy, the how is another story. This is one of the best reads for me this year.