Review: The Dry by Jane Harper

I’d been meaning to read The Dry for a decent amount of time, ever since the striking cover design caught my eye at the Magnolia Bookstore during Independent Bookstore Day last year. The premise sounded great—a detective reluctantly returning to his rural Australian hometown, where unresolved tensions from 20 years before still simmer and a recent family murder-suicide has badly rattled townspeople already suffering from the worst drought in a century. Of course, many many books with equally great premises are also on my TBR list—but in the midst of my mystery/thriller spree earlier this year, I finally pulled up The Dry on my Kindle and dove in.

To be completely honest, the premise is great. The slow-motion natural disaster of the drought creates an immediate and ominous atmosphere from Page 1. We meet our protagonist, Aaron Falk, just as he rolls into town for his childhood best friend Luke’s funeral—as well as the funerals of Luke’s wife and son, who he seemingly killed with a shotgun, before shooting himself in the head. I mean, what a great time to show up in a church full of people that still super hate you!!! So I would say that Harper certainly starts her book at the best possible moment when it comes to shelling out maximum backstory info and character establishment. Also, not only is there the modern-day murder mystery to solve, but we also still aren’t sure what really happened 20 years ago, so I believe that’s called getting good value for your money—two murder mysteries for the price of one! And yes, I kid—but there’s definitely a LOT of tension hanging around, much more than you’d expect from a peaceful little town in the middle of nowhere.

Harper does a few pretty interesting things throughout the novel both stylistically and narratively. Most noticeably, there’s the way she chooses to write moments when our narrator or other characters begin to recall the past. Rather than writing out a full conversation (for instance, with our narrator asking questions and the other character giving responses), Harper instead cuts to a flashback written from the perspective of the character doing the recalling. It’s an interesting choice, although I’m not sure it’s a good choice for this particular story. I think I would be more forgiving in my opinion if Harper had clearly been using form to further her content—that is to say, using the flashback style to further the story she was trying to tell in a specific way, such as thematically, narratively, or symbolically. As it was, I felt as if the information could have been delivered just as well—possibly even better—if it were integrated into the modern-day narrative in a more traditional style.

One major structural decision which I did love, however, was the fact that Falk joins forces with the local police officer Greg Raco from the very start. Rather than being a bumbling idiot in a backwater town who gets in Falk’s way, Raco is sharp and well-trained, already suspecting something isn’t quite right about the apparent murder-suicide before Falk even mentions the possibility to him. Also, there were clear and logical reasons as to why Falk and Raco needed to be subtle about their investigation, holding off on pulling in the big guns from the nearest large town until they had enough evidence to prove they were onto something. Personally, I often find it quite refreshing to read mystery novels in which the police are actually capable of doing their jobs.

Now, without getting into spoilers, I would say that the book had me right up until the last few chapters—at which point I became quite disappointed. Part of this change was because I had managed to guess who the murderer was, namely by process of elimination. Of course, knowing who did it is never going to kill a book for me on its own, so long as the book provides suspense through an artfully crafted narrative with interesting characters being forced to make tough choices, as opposed to relying on withheld information alone to fuel the reader’s desire to keep turning each page. Unfortunately, as the novel went on, The Dry relied too firmly on the trick, rather than the art, and the last few chapters were especially frustrating in this regard. Also, the flashback style I mentioned above didn’t really help in furthering my feelings of suspense as the story reached it climax, since a flashback is inherently truthful from that character’s perspective. In contrast, a story being told to us by another character through dialogue may be completely untrue, maybe even dangerously so, leaving us to worry about whether we (and the protagonist) should trust them or not.

Ignoring the rather “meh” way I felt about the ending, however, I would say that overall The Dry was a very enjoyable read. I wouldn’t ever recommend it to someone looking for the best of the best that mystery has to offer, but I wouldn’t discourage anyone from reading it either. The next book in the Aaron Falk series, Force of Nature, is also out and available, so let me put my feelings about The Dry this way: if I was stuck in an airport terminal for six hours, and had somehow forgotten my Kindle, phone, and iPod all at home, and then spotted Force of Nature sitting unattended and forgotten on the floor, I can confidently say that I would gladly pick it up and read it. But if I was at home, with all of my Kindle books and my heavily weighted bookshelves and digital books on my laptop at my fingertips, the next Aaron Falk mystery probably wouldn’t be my first choice.

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