Written by Jane Harper – It was only last year that Val McDermid highlighted Jane Harper’s debut The Dry during her New Blood session at the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Festival in Harrogate. The Australian author’s novel went on to win awards, sell zillions and see the film rights sold to Reece Witherspoon. This meteoric success has echoes of that of Paula Hawkins with The Girl on the Train, the resultant Hollywood movie and the spawning of a new round of thrillers with ‘the girl’ in their titles.
We are already on to Harper’s third novel with The Lost Man, returning to the Outback setting after a trip to the rain forest in her second, Force of Nature.
Unlike the first two novels, detective Aaron Falk is absent and there is no central cop. This time the mystery is a domestic thriller told from the perspective of Nathan Bright, whose family are at the heart of it.
The cinematic prologue is a stunning opener. A man lies scorched to death in 45-degree heat after crawling around the sundial-style shadow of the headstone at the grave of a stockman who died many decades ago. The grave is so remote that a year could have passed since the last visitor was there. Harper’s prose conveys the terrifying environment and horrific death as the man fries, before the more pedestrian dialogue of the brothers kicks in.
Nathan and his brother Bub are in shock when they meet at the stockman’s grave where their middle brother Cameron lies dead under a tarp at their feet. The manner of his death makes no sense. Cam’s vehicle is parked nine kilometres away, stuffed to the gunnels with enough food, water and fuel to keep a man alive for a week. There’s nothing wrong with the car and no reason for him to abandon it.
The area’s cop is away on another job and when an out-of-town policeman arrives he’s a handy device for the brothers to explain to him, and us, how things work around this godforsaken place. Regardless of this, the cop treats the death as non-suspicious and possibly a suicide; the ferocious heat of the Outback claims many victims every year.
But Nathan knows there’s no way Cameron would have abandoned his lifeline and chosen such a painful death. He would have just blown his brains out.
We are told that the rules of the Outback may seem brutal but they are written in blood. We taste the grit, the scorching of our skins like the corpse by the grave and in this environment we are always just a few hours from potential death. The notion of Cameron, a cattle station owner, breaking those rules makes no sense.
We journey on with Nathan as our guide and he’s pretty much as unreliable a narrator as you can get. He lives three hours from the rest of his family, spends all his time living alone and never visits town, from which he was banned nine years earlier for reasons that are not disclosed until halfway through the tale. Most of the townsfolk hate him, as does his ex wife, and he has spent so much time on his own that his social skills and ability to read people is pretty skewed. On the plus side he is a good observer from the outside.
As Nathan arrives back at their childhood home on the cattle station the rest of the cast are revealed. There’s their tear-streaked mother Liz grieving for her favourite son, judgmental Uncle Harry who’s been around forever, Cameron’s widow Ilse who Nathan was in love with, Ilse’s young daughters, Nathan’s teenage son Xander who normally lives with his mother in the city, the not-so-bright Bub, and a pair of rather suspect backpackers who have been working as hired hands. Nathan suspects them all of at the very least hiding secrets and knowing more than they let on, and at times of more sinister doings. Plus, you’ll have your own suspicions about Nathan himself. Cameron, on the other hand, is everyone’s favourite son, brother, father and neighbour… or so it would seem.
What Harper does brilliantly is convey the claustrophobia that can be endured despite an endless sky and distant horizons, the stifling domestic tensions, and the small-town rancour, where folk turn on each other.
Nathan’s past is spooled in with his present as the chapters alternate between then and now. Like Harper’s previous two books, there’s an awful lot of backstory and, like the premise of The Dry, the central question is whether the dead man committed suicide or was killed? It’s a mash up of an Agatha Christie country house mystery and a domestic noir with just about every trope flung at it from family violence and secrets, to abusive relationships and sexual assault. And then there’s the physical and mental assailant of the Outback itself.
As the story unfolds you’ll begin to wonder if the lost man of the title is Cameron or Nathan, who is finding himself and his way back to other people. This is one of the book’s strengths.
A surprising omission is any aboriginal characters. In the recent BBC screening of Mystery Road, many of the people at the cattle station and in the nearby town have native blood, but there isn’t a single one in The Lost Man. While Nathan’s story is compelling you may find the rest of the cast are more one-dimensional. When you discover how Cameron died it may be a little too rushed for you to take in, although some of the signs point you there.
If you prefer to read your fiction in print you will have to wait until February for the UK hardback. Publisher Little, Brown is promising to throw a huge chunk of its marketing cash at a massive publicity campaign when that happens. But for those who can’t wait that long, the Kindle and iBook editions are out now.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars