*Plot spoilers ahead*
This is such an Australian book, so embedded in local culture that it amazes me it’s popular outside the country. It’s a fine book! But you could forgive someone who, having read The Dry, Wake in Fright, and/or Drylands decided never under any circumstances to visit a rural Australian town. I lived for ten years in Melbourne before moving with my husband to a rural Australian town, and we love it here, but it’s in the central highlands of Victoria and a very beautiful place. Also, we are not currently in drought conditions (though bush fire season approaches and is taken seriously by all of us), and we are not running a farm or dependent on farmers as our customer base.
If you don’t live here and want to understand a bit more about the context of Harper’s story, here’s a timeline of our most recent Victorian drought: 1996-2000: patchy rainfall in the south-east; 2001-2005: El Niño brings on strong drought conditions; 2006-2007: extreme dry and hot conditions in the Murray–Darling basin; 2008-2009: continuing hot and dry conditions; 2009 Black Saturday Bushfires –
worst in Australian history; 2010-2011: La Niña finally breaks the drought. (Source: 2000s Australian Drought.)
During this most recent drought period, I lived in Melbourne and travelled throughout Victoria training and supporting rural support workers, such as psychologists, social workers, financial counselors, addiction counselors (drugs/alcohol/gambling), bush fire counselors, etc. I can tell you now that the distress and pain of the communities facing the death of their livestock, the impoverishment of their families and businesses, and the dying of their towns, is well depicted in this novel. Many of the counselors I was supporting were themselves struggling, financially and emotionally. Farmers were killing themselves at an alarming rate, their bodies sometimes discovered by the rural support workers themselves; disabling depression, alcohol abuse, and domestic violence were on the rise; sheep lay dead in the paddocks (saw this myself, many times); farms that had been passed on from generation to generation had to be sold off to pay debts and feed the family.
Even once the drought had broke, some folks didn’t get a break: mouse plagues arose and devastated their crops. (Wikipedia: In South Australia, only two regions in the Riverland remained in drought. Heavy rains elsewhere led to bumper harvests over much of the state, this in turn led to the largest mouse plague since 1993 across parts of South Australia, West Australia and Victoria. While some farmers tried to replant, in some areas many gave up as millions of mice covered their fields. Farmers often characterised the plague as being worse than the drought.) My husband and I were camping during this time, not yet knowing about the mice and, although mice are not normally scary to me, anything becomes grotesque and scary in plague proportions.
While the drought continued, there was the constant fear of bush fire breaking out which would be apocalyptic for rural towns under such circumstances: dry tinder, hot winds, and the oil in our Eucalyptus forests causing the tree crowns to explode like organic bombs. Finally, this very nightmare occurred, beginning on a day when standing outside felt like some malevolent god was holding a giant blow dryer to your face. It was windy and dry and well over 40C. We called our neighbour and insisted she come to our home and sit in front of the air conditioner. She was elderly and planning to ride out the heat at home but this was no ordinary heat. We drank cold drinks and tried to hold a conversation but, ultimately, our talk died out as we realised that King Lake was burning in the hills. We watched this community and other fires smoking from our terrace the rest of the evening, the smoke reaching our home in the suburbs of Melbourne.
I don’t read many crime novels, but I have a penchant for Louise Penny. I like that she focuses not on the crime so much as the people surrounding it, so that we get inside their heads and hearts and see the world as they see it. I would not say that Jane Harper does this to quite the degree that Penny does. This novel is less complex than the majority of Penny’s Gamache series. In fact, it can be read easily in one or two sittings which I’ve never done with a Penny novel. But I would say that Harper’s strength with building the story around people rather than forensics is like Penny’s. I do not enjoy forensic pathology series. Firstly, they are just gruesome; secondly, they bore me. That is a bad combination. The Dry does have its gristly bits, to be sure; it is dealing with a horrific murder as well as depicting a town whose citizens’ nerves are shredded to pulp. It is raw and gritty and very physical.
Harper does an exceptional job of depicting the physical wear and tear of a hot, dry, hard-scrabble town. I could feel the heat, the despair at looking into an empty river bed, the horrible gasping terror of trying to talk a desperate sociopath out of lighting the bush on fire. The mystery itself is pretty good, as these things go. I was not surprised by the revelations as far as who did what, but nevertheless, the narrative was very well executed. Ruinous gambling addiction is sadly common here, so unsurprising but well chosen as a motivation for murder; timely and relevant in Victoria.[Ruinous gambling addiction is sadly common here, so unsurprising but well chosen as a motivation for murder;
timely and relevant in Victoria. (hide spoiler)]
My only nagging complaint, based on my own experiences in rural Victoria, even during the very worst of the drought and after the 2009 bush fire tragedy, is that Harper did not show much of the kindness and care of these communities. For, despite all these challenges, it is there. I found it again and again. Reading The Dry could make you think that these communities fracture entirely under pressure, so that there is precious little decency or humanity left, and what is there has to be brought in from the outside (Melbourne in the case of Falk; Adelaide for the town’s police chief and his family). On the contrary, there is a strong and tenacious spirit at the heart of many of these towns and these people, and always a core of them who pull together at the worst of times and help each other and the community.