I very much enjoyed Jane Harper’s runaway bestseller The Dry (see my review of that from Year 2) with its tale of small-town murder in a parched, drought-ridden Australia. This follow-up, Force of Nature, finds the same policeman (Aaron Falk) working in the finance department, tracking down money launderers. The firm he is investigating hold an executive retreat / experience in the outback, and this is where we find things at the start – five women set off into the bush, but only four make it back….
Like The Dry, this really rattles along: Harper has a real knack for dialogue and a pacy narrative, and I found myself turning the pages really swiftly here to find out what happened and who did what; I guessed whodunnit eventually, but there are plenty of red herrings and possible suspects to get your readerly teeth into. As well as the five women, there are five men also out in the outback – and there’s the son of an old serial killer (who’d murdered four young women) allegedly hanging around as well. All grist to the mill of suspicion…
Later in the novel, the children of the protagonist become relevant to the plot, and this felt very real – without saying what happened exactly, the role of social media in how it can affect and ruin the lives of teenagers seemed pretty accurate. But it did feel as if Harper was probably starting to introduce a few too many elements to sustain effectively here – what worked so well with The Dry was the oppressive atmosphere that built up over time, and that being the primary focus of the book (arguably even the primary character). The best elements here work in the retelling of what happens in the outback, and the less engaging ones are to do with money laundering, schoolplace bullying, boutique accountancy firms or slightly clunky father-son reminiscences – regardless of how peripheral or central they are to the plot. Less may well have been more here.
Nevertheless, it is difficult to argue with Harper’s grip on the reader, and her ability to build empathetic and believable characters. Falk has a refreshing air of normalcy as a lead policeman, and adding an assistant (Carmen) adds to the novel’s interest more than a standard on-off thing; the five women are the centre of the book and their interplay is excellent – familial, historical and occupational relationships all mixed up. For that alone, it reaches up to the standards of The Dry – and Harper remains a standout talent.