When I feel like reading an atmospheric and gritty crime fiction novel, my mind takes me to the cold and snowy landscape that is Scandinavian or Nordic noir. Jane Harper’s gripping debut novel, The Dry, shows that the heat of the Australian outback is as good place as any for a good mystery story.
Set in a parched climate of Kiewarra, a small fictional town in Australia mired with poverty, The Dry opens with a ghastly murder scene. Following the track of the blowflies in the sweltering heat, we find that they are not feasting on the carcasses of dead animals but rather the bloody remains of three dead people. To the residents of Kiewarra, it seems like the case is a simple one: murder suicide. Kiewarra’s long-time resident, Luke Hadler, is driven mad by the seemingly endless drought and decides to kill his wife and his young son. When federal agent and former Kiewarra resident Aaron Falk unwillingly returns to his hometown, he slowly finds that nothing is what it seems. Falk ends up investigating the case with a local sheriff named Raco, unearthing secrets and unwanted memories for everyone, including Falk, himself.
Taking inspiration from Australia’s the Big Dry, a severe drought in the mid-1990s, Harper sets the grounds for a story that is brimming with tension: farmers on the verge of poverty, the river running dry, and neighbors turning against each other. The sweltering heat hovers over the entire book as if a cloud never giving way to rain. As Federal Agent Falk and Sheriff Raco close in on the investigation, the pressure around the residents of Kiewarra gradually mounts and the heat becomes incredibly suffocating, an aspect that stands out throughout the novel. The premise, the setting, and the atmosphere remind one of a good western story: a stranger comes into a small town and begins to stir up a hornet’s nest. The fact that this is Jane Harper’s first foray into crime fiction novels makes The Dry even more impressive.
The Dry provides a glimpse of the severe drought’s economic impact on communities like Kiewarra in Australia and how it psychologically impacts its residents. At the whims of nature, the landscape could become as disorienting as it is frightening. Jane Harper worked as a journalist for 13 years. She mines the wealth of information she gathered and turns it into an astounding page-turner. With its unexpected plot twists, The Dry will keep you gritting your teeth and guessing to the very end. It is not surprising that a film adaptation is currently in production.