Murder in the Outback: Jane Harper’s The Dry (Australia)

Jane Harper, The Dry (Little, Brown/Abacus, 2017; Hachette audiobook)

First line: Even those who didn’t darken the door of the church from one Christmas to the next could tell there would be more mourners than seats.  

If you haven’t read The Dry yet, then drop everything. I’d heard on the grapevine that this Australian debut was fantastic, and following a reminder from my mum (who likes to read The Times crime recommendations down the phone to me), finally managed to get hold of it.

The Dry is set in Kiewarra, a small farming community a few hours from Melbourne in south-eastern Australia, which for the past two years has experienced a horrendous drought and sustained financial pressure. However, the community is still stunned when Luke Hadler, a respected local farmer, kills his wife Karen and six-year-old son Billy, before turning the shotgun on himself. The lone survivor of the murder-suicide is baby Charlotte, who is found unharmed in her cot at the family farm.

Luke’s childhood friend, Federal Police investigator Aaron Falk, returns to Kiewarra for the funerals, the first time he has set foot in the town since leaving as a teenager in difficult circumstances. His intention is to leave again as soon as possible, but he’s persuaded to stay on by Luke’s mother Barb, who is convinced of her son’s innocence. After a visit to the Hadler farm and crime scene, Falk starts an informal investigation into the killings with Kiewarra’s recently appointed community police sergeant, Greg Raco, who feels that something about the case is off.

Where to start when singing this novel’s praises? The writing and characterisation are excellent. The reader is immediately drawn into the life of Kiewarra’s remote community, and the landscapes and searing heat are brought vividly to life. The plotting is meticulous, with Falk and Raco’s investigation providing tantalising clues as various lines of inquiry unfold. The police procedural detail is gripping, and the resolution to the case is both unexpected and completely plausible. There is also a second, parallel narrative strand – the story of why Falk and his father were forced to leave Kiewarra twenty years earlier – which is expertly woven into the main investigation. It provides a fascinating insight into teenage life in an isolated community, and, like the main narrative, shows how such communities can turn on those they deem to have transgressed social codes. Secrets and lies abound. Tension is also generated by sections in which the past and present alternate, adding layers of richness to the story.

It’s hard to believe that The Dry is Harper’s debut novel. It’s an extraordinary achievement: accomplished, hard-hitting and completely gripping. I can’t wait to see what she writes next.

You can read the first chapter of The Dry here. One extra note: I listened to the audiobook version, and hearing the story told by an Australian voice was a definite plus. Stephen Shanahan’s narration was excellent (though the Scottish accent of one of the characters needed a little work!)

60 thoughts on “Murder in the Outback: Jane Harper’s The Dry (Australia)

  1. That’s it, Mrs. P! You’re now the third person I trust who’s said this book’s excellent. I really must move it to the TBR, I see. So glad you enjoyed it.

      • Margot, I can’t believe you haven’t read this one already. It’s been a phenomenal hit in Oz and worthy of the hype, though for my money, Jock Serong’s The Rules of Backyard Cricket is every bit as good. Also, both you and Mrs P should keep an eye out for Wimmera by debut author Mark Brandi and An Isolated Incident by Emily Maguire. When it comes to Aussie rural noir, we seem to be enjoying an embarrassment of riches at present.

      • Thanks for the recommendations, Angela! I have Serong’s Cricket waiting for me on my bookshelf and am making a note of the other titles you mention. An embarrassment of riches indeed! Hope they keep coming!

  2. Sounds great! Having just raced through Paul Hardisty’s Straker books at your recommendation I’ve just ordered The Dry from A*****… Thanks Mrs P!

  3. I met the author in Lyon and she was so modest, so overcome by all the fuss, this being her debut and all. I was telling all the French people what a brilliant book it was, so I hope she got some good sales out of it. Yes, it has been translated into French. They clearly have some good scouts for English language literature.

    • How wonderful that you had the chance to meet her, Marina Sofia. I’m really pleased the book is having so much international success. It must be quite something to see that happen with a debut… I’ll check to see if it’s out in German.

      • Yes – sometimes the translation even beats the original language to publication! Just checked and The Dry was published in German in 2016 (so it was out in Germany before it was out in the UK). Interestingly, they opted to keep the original title.

  4. I am actually on page 50 of this book, had to put it down to go to sleep for an earlier than usual wake-up alarm. It is good.
    Now I see Angela’s suggestions and it seems I’ll be in Oz for awhile this summer.

  5. I recommended this book to all my friends last year – everyone loved it. It was consistently popular in our Australian best seller lists.
    I also highly recommend Australian crime writer Michael Robotham.

    • Thanks, Mercester. The Dry seems to be one of those rare novels everyone wants to recommend to their friends. I’ve been struck by the uniformly positive response to the novel as well – it must have an incredibly broad appeal.

      Thanks for recommending Michael Robotham – I’ve not read any of his as yet, so will take a look.

  6. Morning Mrs P. Anything Australian gets my vote. I blame it all on ‘Skippy the bush Kangaroo’! Loved that series. The Dry will be a definite addition to my lists of books TBR. Will also have a look at the books Angela Savage recommended too. Must get onto Amazon soon as.

    • ‘What’s that you say, Skippy? Read lots of Australian crime fiction? Available at all good bookshops? OK, Skippy, will do.’

      Looks like we might have an Australian crime season kicking off 🙂

      • Yeah, I know. Shaky sets and dodgy plots, but hey, Skippy was what we enjoyed back in the day 😁! If Aussie books are as good as their TV dramas, there will be plenty for me to enjoy.
        I’m green with envy for all those lucky people who live there and for those going to visit. Will look up Michael Robotham as well whilst I’m in Amazon….

  7. So glad you were able to enjoy this in audio format Mrs P – I loved it that way too. We are all eagerly awaiting Jane Harper’s follow up too – it’s called FORCE OF NATURE and set to come out in February 2018.

    One of the things I adored about THE DRY was how accurately it depicted the weather – the almost-human malevolence of unending drought – very few writers can get that across

    • Thanks for the details of the follow-up, Bernadette – will really look forward to reading or listening to that one. I hope they use the same narrator – he really was excellent.

      The concept of drought over here is a dry spell lasting a few weeks (and is rare), so the idea of a drought lasting two years is pretty mind-boggling. And the ferocity of the heat was brilliantly conveyed – I could feel it here in a blowy Wales. Harper is a very gifted writer.

  8. The sense of place is definitely well-done in The Dry. One can feel the dryness, the brown grass, the thirsty sheep. And the depressed people. An excellent book. But not one I read without shedding a few tears. That’s the mark of a good book, when an author makes the characters feel real and what happens to them effects the reader.
    Can’t wait for Jane Harper’s book two in this Aaron Falk series. Guess he’s turned detective from financial investigator.
    Good protagonist, likable.

    • Totally agree, kathy d. I loved the sense of place (travelled in Oz in my youth, and it brought lots of memories back). But yes, a very hard read in many ways. Looking forward to book two as well.

    • Great to hear, Tracey. I had the same experience as you. Was listening to it on audiobook while out walking, and the walks kept getting longer and longer!

  9. Yes, but then there’s “post-good-book slump” after a book like this. What to read next? Nothing seems interesting.
    However, I am now reading a non-criminal book and it’s hard for me to keep picking it up. I want a break from brutality after “The Dry,” but then I don’t feel as compelled to keep reading. A dilemma.

    • Very true. Sometimes I don’t read for a little while, or watch film/TV instead, or try to read something completely different. But it is tough if nothing quite measures up.

  10. Sounds good, and if you enjoyed it, I’m willing to give it a try. Everyone was talking about this book during my recent visit to the UK, and although I browsed the book at Waterstones, it did not seem like my cup of tea. But if you say it’s great, then I’m sure I’ll enjoy it! Thanks for the recommendation, and happy summer, Mrs.P! xxx

    • Hopefully you’ll like it, Elena – though of course we all have individual tastes and preferences when it comes to books, and not every one will be our cup of tea! Any top summer reads you’d recommend?

      Have a lovely summer! ❤

  11. I bought this one and a friend of mine enjoyed it and told me to get it. I will make sure to read it soon!

  12. A must-read: Susie Steiner’s “Persons Unknown.” Amazing character development mixed with good plot. I will follow Manon Bradshaw anywhere anytime.

  13. Some readers think Susie Steiner is giving Tana French some competition. The writing is different, character development different, too, but the quality of the writing is probably equal.

  14. Tana French’s book “The Trespasser” won prizes in Ireland for best crime fiction of 2016. I don’t know if she’ll keep writing, but I don’t know if she can top that book. The dialogue is superb. And there’s some sly wit. One tidbit: A sleazy journalist is sitting in a coffee shop-type place reading a book with a cover on it with huge lettering with Sartre’s name on it. He’s a phony, just wants people to think he’s an intellectual. It is a must-read.

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  22. An interesting but flawed debut. I found I was able to solve the main plot and identify the killer half way thru the book. The author, by the way, is a Pom, not an Australian. I was hoping I’d got the solution wrong. That the author had sent me down the wrong path. Alas, this was not the case.

    • Hello Richard – I’m trying to remember now if I worked it out… I might have done, but it didn’t spoil the experience (and I thought the psychology of the crime was well done). Have you read any of her others?

      You’re right that Harper has connections to the UK, but I’m not sure how she would regard herself, as she’s lived in Australia for a number of years, and still lives there I believe. It would be interesting to ask her!

  23. Have just listened to this book on audio, great novel. Will definetley get” more books of Jane Harper.

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