Imagine the dry, brown land of a community in Australia. Imagine that the entire place is so drought stricken, the only river that ran past it has dried it up and the only thing the entire place is ‘soaking up’ is the sun. But people still live in this place called Kiewerra, as unbearable as it is. Doesn’t exactly sound appealing, does it? But now add a murder mystery to the entire setting, and watch it shift? Does it sound interesting now?
Aaron Falk works as a Federal Police Agent in Melbourne when, after twenty years, he returns to his birthplace, Kiewerra, to attend the funeral of his best friend Luke Hadler. For the almost destitute, sweating, and tired population of Kiewerra, the circumstances of Luke’s death are tragic but not shocking. The case is a murder suicide: Luke shot his wife Karen and their son Billy but spared his infant daughter Charlotte, before turning the gun on himself. Some people think his death was a relief for him and his family from problems Kiewerra brings with it, but Luke’s parents suspect foul play and convince Aaron to investigate. Aaron wants to do justice to Luke, but he is only a financial officer, and digging into the case is even harder when Aaron himself is antagonized by the residents of Kiewerra for a past crime which ended with the drowning of a young girl.
In the world of mystery literature, ‘The Dry’ begins with textbook formulae for writing a murder mystery novel: A reluctant protagonist with a past, an unusual place where no one is who they seem and questions that never reach their answers. But this novel still works, because just when it looks like we are tunneling into a story we have read dozens of times already, some twist is waiting for us in the corner.
As a protagonist, Aaron Falk is a likeable character, both his present self and past self. He is quiet, wishes to distant himself from the terrible and despite the wrongs done to him still perseveres as a selfless person. Other characters in the novel’s universe include Aaron’s old friends, Luke Hadler, described as the popular, outgoing man who once aided Aaron during a time of need. There is Gretchen, Luke’s high school girlfriend, who in the present day is a single mother and reenters Aaron’s life as a nostalgic reminder. Then there is the enigmatic character of Ellie Deacon, who was an old friend of both Aaron and Luke, a talented, bright girl, who it is slowly revealed, came from an unhappy background. Additionally, in the present day of Kiewerra, we meet the inquisitive Sergeant Raco, an officer who aids Aaron in solving the mystery.
Jane Harper was born in the United Kingdom, but moved to Australia with her family as a child. As a teenager, she returned to the UK and went on to pursue a degree in English and History at the University of Kent. Working as a journalist in between the two countries, her creative writing career began with a short story that was shortlisted in Big Issue’s Annual Fiction Edition. The Dry marked her first novel and her breakthrough as a writer, further leading to a sequel ‘Force of Nature’ which continued the adventures of Officer Aaron Falk.
Harper’s writing style is straightforward and simple. She doesn’t waste too much time in poetic ramblings, but instead her prose is straightforward and informational. Her construction of the story is clever: that the present in written in third person, showing the experiences of the protagonist Aaron, while simultaneously, the passage features ‘excerpts’ of the past written in third person of the other characters. These ‘excerpts’ only aid in building suspense and tell us things which the readers ache for the main lead to find out.
Published in May 2016, the novel was welcomed with great positive response. A bestseller which received not only critical acclaim, the novel won the British Book Award for Crime & Thriller Book of the Year 2018, the UK Crime Writer’s Association Gold Dagger Award for Best Crime Novel 2017, Goodreads Choice Award for Best Mystery Thriller and Best Debut 2017, and these are only a handful among other widespread recognitions. In 2015, a film adaptation had been commissioned, and after multiple delays was finally released in early 2021. The movie stars Eric Bana as Aaron, among other Australian actors.
I’d give this novel a well-deserved 4/5 stars. Simply put, the novel plunges you into a rabbit hole of suspense, and stuns you by presenting a twist in every chapter. Some sections may leave you exhausted and begging for the mystery to unveil, but the end does not disappoint. On a more philosophical note, the novel is about ordinary people with ordinary lives who are reduced to desperate measures.