My colleague Heather handed me a book. Just read the first page, she said.
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 blowflies spoiled for choice that summer. They sought out unblinking eyes and sticky wounds as the farmers of Kiewarra levelled their rifles at skinny lifestock. 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.
‘It’ll break,’ the farmers said as the months ticked over into a second year. They repeated the words out loud to each other like a mantra, and under their breath to themselves like a prayer …
The body in the clearing was the freshest. It took the flies slightly longer to discover the two in the farmhouse, despite the front door swinging open like an invitation…
Of course, I instantly borrowed the book, a debut novel from Australian journalist Jane Harper that has bagged so many awards that the stickers jostle for space on the cover.
I had to find out what happens next, as enigmatic federal agent Aaron Falk goes home for the funeral of Luke Hadler, the best friend of his childhood and teens – who has, it appears, taken his own life.
It’s no ordinary funeral, though: before his final decision, Luke also shot his wife and little son, sparing only his baby daughter.
The town largely accepts that the searing drought, the heat, and perhaps the prospect of his farm going under all combined to send Luke over the edge.
But Luke’s parents are desperate for some alternative answer. And so Falk, a financial crimes specialist, makes a reluctant promise to them that he will have a poke through Luke’s affairs.
In part because of old loyalties, in part to protecting a secret of his own from that long-ago past he and Luke shared.
Falk finds that the local police sergeant has his own doubts and suspicions about what happened on that farm and together they begin an off-the-books investigation.
But things get increasingly nasty in the town as the heat builds, and you begin to wonder if Falk can solve this increasingly sinister riddle before violence breaks out once more.
Harper’s parched and lonely setting forms a backdrop to a plot that’s like kindling, artfully laid to build to a fast and furious burn.
And her crackling creation of Kiewarra proves itself as much a character as Luke, or Falk, in the heart-stopping role it plays in a nailbiting climax.
I never expected this debut novel to be quite so complex and layered – I guessed again and again, but the truth shocked me when it came, like a cold plunge into a deep river on a sweltering day.
A riveting blend of literary and crime fiction, it is full of disquieting truths about about rural life and community.
I had to work to make myself keep it going for three days; luckily, I’m late to the Jane Harper party, so I can immediately go on to the sequel, Force of Nature, also published by Pan MacMillan.
There’s also the film version coming, optioned by Reese Witherspoon’s production company, starring Eric Bana as Falk.
Read and liked The Dry? Then you might enjoy this recent interview with Jane Harper on literary podcast The Garret in which she discusses the book and her path to publication.