Sunday, June 26, 2022

The Dry (Book) (2016)

Australian author Jane Harper’s novel The Dry introduces Aaron Falk, and it is the first of three novels that she has written with Falk as the main character. The Dry begins with a prologue that describes the climate of Kiewarra, the rural fictional setting and Falk’s hometown. It talks about the long-term drought conditions plaguing the area, and it thus brings climate change front and center in a story about murder and long-kept secrets.

The drought had left the flies spoiled for choice that summer. They sought out unblinking eyes and sticky wounds as the farmers of Kiewarra leveled their rifles at skinny livestock. No rain meant no feed. And no feed made for difficult decisions as the tiny town shimmered under day after day of burning blue sky.  (page 1)

The climate is an integral part of the story, and it is important for the plot that readers are reminded of its effects on both the landscape and the characters. But this is a mystery story and a police procedural, too. A film by the same name is a close adaptation of the novel. Climate change, drought, and desperation are all themes in both the novel and the film. In fact, many of the details from the film are the same as those in the novel.

The novel is the basis for a film by the same name: The Dry (2020). I saw the film before I read the novel. Click here for my article about the film.

One major difference between the novel and the film is that the flashbacks in the novel are not always told from Falk’s point of view, as they are in the film. In the novel, other residents of Kiewarra, for example, Ellie Deacon, her father Mal Deacon, Gretchen Schoner, and others, have their memories told through the omniscient author. The fact that other characters are brought into the story this way means that more details about the past can be revealed. The film also manages to reveal details through Falk’s memory flashbacks that fill in what viewers need to know; however, some are changed just a bit from those in the novel.

Aaron Falk is an Australian federal police officer living in Melbourne who comes home to the fictional town of Kiewarra to attend the funeral of his childhood friend, Luke. Luke Hadler, Gretchen Schoner (Gretchen has a last name in the novel; she doesn’t in the film), Aaron, and Ellie Deacon were close friends in school. Now, with Luke dead, only Aaron and Gretchen are still alive. Ellie Deacon died under mysterious circumstances when the friends were still in high school.

After the funeral for Luke, Karen, and Billy Hadler, Aaron Falk meets Gretchen Schoner again for the first time in years. They talk about the level of desperation many of the local farmers are feeling as a result of the drought, and they discuss whether such desperation could be behind the Hadlers’ deaths.

                “It’s hard to know, though,” she said after a pause. “Everyone’s so angry. But they’re not just angry at Luke exactly. The people paying him out the most don’t seem to hate him for what he’s done. It’s weird. It’s almost like they’re jealous.”

                “Of what?”

                “Of the fact that he did what they can’t bring themselves to do, I think. Because now he’s out of it, isn’t he? While the rest of us are stuck here to rot, he’s got no more worrying about crops or missed payments or the next rainfall.”

                “Desperate solution,” Falk said. “To take your family with you . . .” (pages 17–18)

As he was in the film adaptation, Luke is accused of shooting his wife and son and then shooting and killing himself. Many in the town believe Luke is guilty of murder-suicide because they believe he and Aaron Falk lied about the death of Ellie Deacon twenty years or so earlier, thus casting suspicion on both of them. Aaron Falk is not in Kiewarra in an official capacity, and he doesn’t want to intrude on someone else’s case or override their authority. The story uses his situation, thanks to the request of Luke’s parents, to put him in the position of detective, but he is clearly no amateur. Falk takes on the role of private investigator, a role for a main character that is a hallmark of many noirs, new and old, but he is not a member of the official police investigation. The fact that he shares history with many town residents makes his position a bit unique—and very interesting for the narrative.

Luke’s parents, Gerry and Barb Hadler, implore Aaron to stay after the funeral and do some investigating of his own, even though he is understandably uncomfortable about returning home and staying any longer than he has to. They want him to begin with Luke’s and his wife’s finances. They are convinced that the failure of the wheat crop put Luke and Karen in debt and that something related to money is the cause of the tragedy. Aaron agrees to look into the books for the Hadlers’ farm, but he vows to leave after that. Many of the residents don’t want him in town, and some are willing to resort to violence to make their opinions crystal clear.

It’s clear from the start of the novel that the changes in the local climate have a drastic effect on everyone in Kiewarra and the surrounding area. And even though Aaron has not lived in his hometown for almost twenty years, the weather has an impact on him, too. He returns to the river where he used to fish with his father, where he used to swim with Luke Hadler, and where Ellie Deacon drowned.

                The huge river was nothing more than a dusty scar in the land. The empty bed stretched long and barren in either direction, its serpentine curves tracing the path where the water had flowed. The hollow that had been carved over centuries was now a cracked patchwork of rocks and crabgrass. Along the banks, gnarled gray tree roots were exposed like cobwebs.

                It was appalling . . . (page 99)

(This article about the novel The Dry contains all the spoilers, for both the novel and the film based on it.)

In addition to the multiple points of view brought into the novel’s flashbacks, another major difference between the film and the novel is the note that Ellie Deacon wrote on the last day of her life. In the film, the note was found on her body, and it was written by the teenage Aaron Falk. In it, he asks Ellie to meet him at the river, and it’s the reason that so much suspicion is directed toward him. In the novel, the note is in Ellie’s handwriting, and all that is written is the date she died and “Falk.” Grant Dow, Ellie’s cousin, finds the note and plants it in her bedroom, with her father’s blessing. Thus, in the novel, suspicion lands initially on both Aaron and his father Erik. When Luke Hadler shows up outside Aaron’s bedroom to tell him the story that he must tell the police (that they were together shooting rabbits), Aaron hasn’t been questioned yet because the police are questioning his father first.

These kinds of differences make the novel seem more free-flowing—and a bit more complicated. More points of view are brought into the narrative of the novel, but the film is Aaron Falk’s story all the way. The story is told from his perspective only, and all of the flashbacks are his memories coming back to him with even more force because he is back home.

Aaron Falk and Sergeant Greg Raco, the lone permanent member of the Kiewarra police force, eventually tie all the loose ends and apprehend the murderer of the Hadler family. Falk and Raco suffer some serious injuries because their suspect lit the bush around him on fire rather than give himself up, and their eagerness to jump in and prevent an out-of-control wildfire causes their burns.  After his recovery, Aaron heads out to Ellie Deacon’s favorite place, the rock tree by the now-dry river, to say goodbye to her.

Falk tramped through the fields, his head clearer now. Twenty years was twenty years, but some things shouldn’t be swept away. Ellie Deacon. She more than anyone had been a victim of this town. Its secrets and lies and fear. She had needed someone. Needed him, maybe, and he had failed her. Ellie was the one at risk of being forgotten in all the chaos. . . .

                Not today, Falk thought. Today he would remember Ellie, at the place he knew she’d loved. He reached the rock tree as the sun was starting to dip in the sky. It was nearly April now. The summer fierceness was fading away. They said the drought might break this winter. For everyone’s sake, he wanted them to be right this time. The river was still gone. He hoped one day it would come back. (pages 319–320)

Falk has some hope left, and I do too at the end of the novel—and at the end of the film. I fervently hope that Ellie Deacon’s murderer will see justice. Aaron Falk, and thus readers and viewers, learn the murderer’s identity, but what does Falk do with this information? I wasn’t entirely sure at the end of the novel or the film (I was more certain at the end of the film), but because The Dry is the first of Jane Harper’s series about Aaron Falk, perhaps we will learn eventually what the author has in mind for him and his pursuit of justice.

Two Aaron Falk novels by Jane Harper have been published as of June 2022. A third is scheduled for publication later this year in Australia and next year in the United States:

The Dry (2017, first U.S. edition; copyright 2016)

Force of Nature (2018, first U.S. edition; copyright 2017)

Exiles (2023, first U.S. edition; September 2022 in Australia)

I enjoyed the film more than the novel, which is unusual for me. I wonder if it is because I saw the film before I read the novel, but I guess I’ll never really know. And besides, in this case, it’s really just a matter of degree. The novel is a page-turner. I read it in four days, and I say this even though I was pretty sure I knew the ending was the same as that of the film.

The Dry, by Jane Harper    New York: Flatiron Books, 2017 (first U.S. edition; copyright 2016)

List of main characters:

Aaron Falk, Australian federal police officer    Erik Falk, Aaron’s father    Gretchen Schoner, Aaron’s childhood friend    Ellie Deacon, Aaron’s childhood friend    Mal Deacon, Ellie’s father    Grant Dow, Ellie’s cousin    Luke Hadler, Aaron’s childhood friend    Karen Hadler, Luke’s wife    Billy Hadler, Luke and Karen’s son    Charlotte Hadler, Luke and Karen’s thirteen-month-old daughter    Gerry Hadler, Luke’s father    Barb Hadler, Luke’s mother    Scott Whitlam, elementary school principal    Sandra Whitlam, Scott’s wife    Sergeant Greg Raco    Rita Raco, Greg’s wife    Deborah, police station receptionist    Evan Barnes, police constable    Jamie Sullivan, farmer and friend of Luke Hadler    Patrick Leigh, local doctor    David McMurdo, owner and bartender at the Fleece

The image of the front cover is from the first U.S. edition published by Flatiron Books, as listed above. All page references are to this first U.S. edition.