The Dry by Jane Harper Review

The Dry by Jane Harper is a gritty and riveting crime read that well deserves the description, atmospheric.

The Dry by Australian author Jane Harper is the debut novel in her Aaron Falk series. I started the series with the third book, Exiles, only because the publisher offered me an advanced copy for review purposes. Harper had already been on my radar before I read that book and I enjoyed it so much that naturally, I wanted to read the first two Aaron Falk novels. It took me a while to get to it, but here we are.

The Dry Publisher's Synopsis

Aaron Falk #1

A small town hides big secrets in The Dry, an atmospheric, page-turning debut mystery by award-winning author Jane Harper.

After getting a note demanding his presence, Federal Agent Aaron Falk arrives in his hometown for the first time in decades to attend the funeral of his best friend, Luke. Twenty years ago when Falk was accused of murder, Luke was his alibi. Falk and his father fled under a cloud of suspicion, saved from prosecution only because of Luke’s steadfast claim that the boys had been together at the time of the crime. But now more than one person knows they didn’t tell the truth back then, and Luke is dead.

Amid the worst drought in a century, Falk and the local detective question what really happened to Luke. As Falk reluctantly investigates to see if there’s more to Luke’s death than there seems to be, long-buried mysteries resurface, as do the lies that have haunted them. And Falk will find that small towns have always hidden big secrets.

Flatiron Books (2017)

Genre(s) Murder Thrillers, Police Procedural

Jane Harper | Pub Date Jan. 10, 2017 | ISBN 978-1-250-10560-8 | 336 pages

The Dry Review

“Atmospheric” is such an overused descriptor in book reviews these days that I almost cringe when I see it. But if there was ever a novel (or three) deserving of it, Harper’s writing reaches the bar. Her evocative prose alone describing a severe drought that plays such a dramatic role in this book makes The Dry deserving of “atmospheric.” Indeed, the dry, parched climate is almost a character in its own right. If that doesn’t say atmospheric, I can’t imagine what does.

After a sinister prologue, the book begins with our lead, Aaron Falk, a Melbourne-based Australian Federal police officer, arriving in Kiewarra, the small, rural town where he grew up for the first time since he and his father left town under dark clouds of suspicion years earlier. Thirty-six-year-old Falk is in town for the funeral of his best childhood friend, Luke Hadler, who authorities have concluded shot to death his wife Karen and young son Billy before shooting himself.

Falk had only returned for the funeral at the insistence of Luke’s father, Gerry, and he intends to return to Melbourne immediately after paying his respects given the circumstances that had prompted him and his father to make a hasty departure from the town when Falk had been sixteen. He quickly learns most of the residents of Kiewarra haven’t forgotten him or his father and aren’t happy to see him back in town, which makes him even more eager to leave town. But after the funeral, Luke’s grieving father and especially his mother ask Falk to look into the murder-suicide because they can’t believe Luke killed his family and then himself.

The town’s lead police officer had only recently arrived in town and the Hadlers feel uncertain he and an outside agency had conducted a thorough investigation. Falk, who investigates white collar crime as a member of the federal police, feels reluctant to get involved, mostly because he desperately wants to leave the town with its unhappy childhood memories and the suspicious, grudge holding residents behind as soon as possible. Also, investigating murders isn’t the sort of police work he does any longer. But because Barb Hadler, Luke’s mother, had been almost a mother to him while growing up, he agrees to stay a few days to take a cursory look at the evidence.

Later the town’s police officer, Raco, tells Falk he isn’t entirely convinced that Luke killed his family, and explains a slight discrepancy in the evidence that causes his doubts. He then asks Falk to help with what Aaron realizes is an off-the-books reinvestigation. Raco doesn’t want to risk the ire of the agency that assisted with the investigation unless he can come up with solid proof Luke wasn’t the killer. The information Raco gives him convinces Falk to stay and become involved. That doesn’t sit well with many of the town’s residents.

Had I just picked up this book to read, knowing nothing about it or about Jane Harper, I’d never have imagined this was a debut novel. It’s that good. Perhaps that isn’t surprising, since Harper is a former journalist and obviously a skilled writer. Yet writing news columns and writing novels are two very different things. Obviously, given the quality of the writing and storytelling, Harper made the transition from news to novel writing by the time she published her first book. The pacing is near flawless and Harper keeps us guessing until the end.

Having read Exiles, I learned little about Aaron Falk in this book that I didn’t already know. Harper did an admirable job summarizing Falk’s history and the source of the animosity the townspeople feel toward him in her third book in the series. Like all good series writers, she writes books that work just as well as standalones even though they are part of a series with some common characters and backstories. There was a little more detail about Aaron’s history in this book, but I came to it with a good understanding of what Falk was about.

Whether one enjoys murder mysteries, crime thrillers, or a good police procedural, this is an enjoyable, riveting read that ticks all the boxes. While in my experience it isn’t necessary to read this series in order to enjoy the books, The Dry is as good a place as any to start if you haven’t read Jane Harper. She has earned a spot in my pantheon of best loved New Zealand and Australian crime writers and I already have a copy of Force of Nature, the second Aaron Falk novel, on my to-be-read pile.

Book rating: ★★★★★

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