It seems like 2023 is turning out to be the year of crime fiction farewells. First came the end, for the time being at least, of Elly Griffiths’ series featuring forensic archeologist Ruth Galloway; now, thousands of miles and continents away it is time to say goodbye to Aaron Falk, who works in the financial division of the Australian Federal Police.
We first met Falk back in 2017, in The Dry, the book which launched the career of Jane Harper, turned her into a top-selling author right across the globe and started the rural noir / Outback noir ball a-rolling. In 2021, Falk even made it to television and the streaming services, with Eric Bana taking the role in a feature length film version of The Dry created for Sky and Now TV.
Book two, Force of Nature, appeared in 2018 and now the Falk trilogy reaches its finale with Exiles, which finds Falk reunited with old friend and local cop Greg Raco from The Dry, who also made a fleeting appearance in Force of Nature. It’s six years on since the events in Falk’s home town of Kiewarra that first threw the pair together, and this time they are meeting under much happier circumstances. Baby Eric, the newest addition to Raco’s growing family is about to be christened, and Falk has been asked to be one of the godparents.
That’s why they meet in the Marilee Valley, a fictional part of South Australian wine country where Raco was brought up and where his brother Charlie runs a vineyard. The ceremony is a holdover from the previous year, though – back then it had to be postponed due to tragic circumstances. One year on, the family is about to try again.
Just like before, the christening is on the same weekend as the Marralee wine and produce festival, a popular local event that attracts big crowds from far and near. Which is why the disappearance 12 months ago of Charlie’s ex-wife Kim is all the more mysterious. Remarried and with a new baby, Kim vanished from the showground and has not been seen since. Even now her absence hangs over proceedings like a cloud and as new appeals are made for witnesses to come forward it is clear that emotions are still high within the Raco clan and beyond. Everyone seems to have a theory about what happened to the missing mother, with Kim and Charlie’s daughter teenage Zara the most vociferous of them all.
Into all the drama steps Falk, an outsider who was one of a handful of people who saw Kim at the showground before her disappearance last year. Returning to Marralee brings it all back and he goes over and over his memories of that day but reaches no new conclusions. While he ponders, Falk senses that Greg Raco is obsessing over the disappearance too.
But Falk is on holiday – he is even valiantly trying to ignore his work emails, quite a feat for someone whose life revolves around his job. It’s time for a bit of R&R, and there’s someone here that Falk would dearly like to spend his time with.
There’s a lovely cosy sense of family in Exiles, but it is coupled with tensions that make it all feel a bit edgy. Themes of loss and loyalty, happiness and despair swirl through the narrative, adding light and shade. Hanging over everything is a pall of suspicion and unresolved mystery. Is Kim dead? If so, where is the body and who did the deed? There’s also the added complication of another unresolved death which happened in the area several years ago. In Marralee too many people are looking for a closure to their grief and confusion – but the place is teeming with secrets and it appears that Falk could be the man to sort out things for good.
Jane Harper hit the ground running with The Dry, a book so well named that you could almost feel the dust wafting in the breeze created by its rapidly turning pages. The trope of the Outback, with its desolation, bushfires and dingoes lurking in the dark has become well worn in the past few years, but I found myself longing for a touch of it as I read this book. Harper seems to relish moving Falk from place to place but Exiles has a less well established setting, that feeling of Austalian-ness somewhat diluted to the point where this area of vineyards can feel a wee bit generic. Putting that quibble aside, there’s an abundance of cracking characters at play here, with a cleverly worked plot and a few surprises along the way.
So how does Exiles fit into the Aaron Falk story arc? It certainly offers fans of the trilogy a satisfying finale, although like the two books that came before, it can safely be read as a standalone. But Falk has always seemed to stick to the sidelines and I’m not sure we’ve ever really got to know him properly. As much as I tried, this is a novel I liked but somehow didn’t love.
Find your next antipodean read in our round up of the best Australian crime writers to try.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars