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Australian Crime Fiction

THE DRY …Between the covers

janeharperauthor2The town of Kiewarra is a dusty five hour drive from Melbourne. Five hours. Six, maybe, if you weren’t that anxious to get there. Five hours, under the same relentless sun, but it might as well be fifty, for all the similarity there is. Melbourne, with its prosperity, its glass and steel central business district, its internationally renowned restaurants and its louche air as a cosmopolitan city. Kiewarra. A pub, a couple of bottle shops and a milk bar; a run-down school, starved of funds; a farming economy choked and parched by two years without rain; families turned bitter and taciturn by the shared misery of failed crops and burgeoning overdrafts. Author Jane Harper (left) takes us right into the deep dark blue centre of this community.

It is to Kiewarra that Federal Agent Aaron Falk returns. It is his home town, but he expects no palm leaves to be strewn in his path, no hymns of rejoicing. The only hymn he hears is the obligatory and badly sung offering at the funeral of an old friend, Luke Hadler. Falk and Hadler grew up together. Hadler stayed to work the family farm, while Falk and his father left for Melbourne under a very dark cloud.

thedrySeeing the coffin of a contemporary being carried through the church is bad enough for Falk, but when it is followed by two smaller ones, one being very much smaller, that is a different thing altogether. For the other two coffins are occupied by Hadler’s wife Karen, and his young son Billy. The story has played out across the mainstream media as a suicide-killing. Luke Hadler, driven mad by debt, failure, jealousy, despair – who knows? – has shot dead his wife and son, and then turned the gun on himself, albeit leaving his thirteen month old daughter Charlotte in her cot, screaming, terrified, but very much alive.

Falk’s ambivalence about returning to his home town is because of the death of a teenage girl, decades earlier. Ellie Deacon was found drowned in the local river, heavy stones crammed into her pockets. She, Falk and Hadler were inseparable companions at junior school, but as their teenage years triggered the inevitable hormones, their relationship became more complicated. The scribbled name “Falk” on a note found among Ellie’s possessions led local people to suspect that Aaron – or his father – had been involved in the death. Aaron and Luke had given each other unshakable alibis for the day of Ellie’s death, but local gossip and suspicion had forced the Falks out of town, never to return. Until now.

In the face of considerable aggression from local people, for whom the distant tragedy might have happened only yesterday, Falk is drawn into a re-investigation of the Hadler killings. Alongside a supportive local copper, Falk uncovers inconsistencies in the various stories people have told about the fatal day, even down to the hours and minutes before the carnage at the Hadler farmhouse was uncovered. As he goes about his work, however, the truth about what really happened on the day Ellie Deacon died hangs over our heads, as readers, like a miasma, malign and reeking of corruption.

This novel is a triumph on so many levels. It is a very clever and subtle whodunnit, and unless you cheated and skipped to last few pages, I doubt you will pick up the clues as to who killed the Hadlers. It is also a poignant elegy for youth, memory and the golden past which, when examined closely, loses some of its apparent lustre. It is an acutely accurate portrait of Australian rural life and how, at the margins, people with European urban lifestyles and ambitions are at the total mercy of the elements. The physical landscape could not be more real. We shield our eyes from the relentless glare of the sun, we feel the crackle of dead and desiccated vegetation under our feet, we hear the relentless drone of the blowflies who seem to be the only flourishing life form in town.

Sometimes, novels which emerge to the echoes of a great media fanfare don’t live up to the glory and resonance of the musical accompaniment. The Dry, I am happy to say, is not one of those. It is a brilliant and haunting masterpiece.

The Dry is published by Little, Brown, and is available here.

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GOOD MORNING ENGLAND … and good evening Australia

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When I lived in Australia, listening to an Ashes cricket series on the old steam radio was a matter of staying up until all hours, usually with some mates and a few beverages. The same time difference works the other way as well, obviously. I’m always delighted to receive a communication of any kind from Australian friends both old – and in this case – new.

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This package looked extremely interesting, as well as carrying some very collectable postage stamps, so the old reliable murder weapon, the paper-knife was fetched from the library ….

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To reveal ….. this delightful surprise. Janice Simpson grew up in rural Victoria on a sheep farm. Miles away from friends during weekends and holidays, she spent a lot of time imagining other worlds through the many books she found on the shelves at home and in the shire library, housed in a silent and dusty hall. Perhaps this early life is best described by a passage from her travel memoir, Let Sleeping Dogs Lie.

“I feel a stab of homesickness when I see the sprawling red gums that inhabit the land of my childhood, the place where I learned how to cook, garden, harvest, preserve, look after animals, read, make things, explore, ride a bike, find solace in my own company”.

Mount Martha, for those who have never had the pleasure of visiting, is what we Poms would call a seaside town, within reasonable driving distance of Melbourne. Janice Simpson’s novel is based on a real life crime from 1953, when one of those endlessly reliable discoverers of murder victims – a dog walker – found the mutilated corpse of a dead girl. The novel switches between contemporary events and present day investigations of Nick Szabo, who is drawn into the old mystery by a series of unexplained events.

There will be a full review of Murder In Mount Martha very soon, but in the meantime you can take a look at the Amazon page for the novel.

 

THE POSTMAN DELIVERS … The Dry

The Dry 2AUSTRALIAN CRIME FICTION doesn’t come my way anywhere near as much as I would like. I’m a massive fan of Peter Temple, but new books from him are as rare as hens’ teeth. For snappy, PI-style reads, there’s always Peter Corris and his Cliff Hardy novels. So, it was with great pleasure that I opened the packet from Little, Brown publishers, to find that I was holding a brand spanking new Australian crime story.

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THE DRY is the work of Melbourne journalist Jane Harper, and it tells the tale of an apparent murder-suicide involving the Hadler family in the small town of Kiewarra. Luke Hadler has committed suicide after apparently killing his wife and young son, and when city cop Aaron Falk returns to his childhood home town for the funeral, he senses that things are not as they seem. His resulting investigation turns over stones, and finds all manner of unpleasant creatures scuttling about underneath. The Dry has already been a runaway success in Australia, and is now available as a paperback and on Kindle here in the UK. It will be out in hardback in January 2017. Meanwhile, you can find out more about the book and the author from her website.

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