February 21, 2021
Jane Harper’s novel is set in a small town called Kiewarra, which is a five hour drive from Melbourne, and a place of tensions and memories for Aaron Falk. He and his father were run out of this town 20 years ago when Aaron was suspected by the locals of having something to do with the death of Ellie.
This is a place where justice is dealt out by locals as much as by the police, where people have scuffles in pubs on a regular basis, and where it is so dry that everyone is going crazy, after no decent rainfall for two years. That matters in a place where people make their living from the land.
Aaron is reluctantly dragged back to the place when an old schoolfriend dies, alongside his wife and child. He had grown apart from the friend, but when the father of his deceased friend sends him a message to be there, he makes the trip. However, he immediately feels unwelcome in the church, and is counting down the hours until he can leave.
He meets Gretchen, who was part of their pack of four, two boys and two girls, back when they were 16, back before Ellie died. Gretchen is one good reason to hang about for a bit longer, but his main reason for staying on is the request from Luke’s parents, who want to know if it’s really true, if it could be that their son killed his wife and son before shooting himself.
And the father has something over Aaron. He knows that he wasn’t with Luke on the day Ellie died. He saw Luke on his own, biking back from the river. So – were there signs back then that his son was a killer? Or was Aaron a killer? Or was the person who drove past and saw Luke on the road, smashing the alibi Luke and Aaron used together to protect themselves, somehow implicated.
I love the way this mystery unfolds in this unforgiving environment. We mostly learn about what’s happening from Aaron’s point of view, but also gain hints from scenes from the past (in italics) and occasionally from other character’s point of view.
It’s like we a holed up in the room above the pub with Aaron – lying there, trying to figure out what went on a week ago, as well as 20 years ago, and unable to move away until we figure it out.
In true crime story style, Aaron has an accomplice – Raco, the newly arrived police officer, who works with him outside of the official ‘Clyde police office’ channels. There are misdirections and false leads to travel through, and a dramatic ending.
I am a sucker for Australian outback stories and movies, but I’ve been thinking about what makes this story in particular so appealing. It’s equal parts the vividness of the writing, the inter-relationships between the people (in the past and the present), and wanting to know who did it.