Sweltering Heat and “The Dry” by Jane Harper

I have been HOT for awhile. Not just hot, SWELTERING. Withering. Melting.

My daughters and I drove through 6 states (Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, and Eastern Colorado) to get to my (and my mom’s) home town for her hometown memorial service (It was wonderful and beautiful, by the way. More on all that another day). It was beautiful when we left Ohio, in the 70s. Perfect weather.

But, by the time we hit Iowa, it was inching into the high 80s. And, the next day, Colorado was in the 90’s. Our drive back saw my car thermometer hit 102 in Nebraska and Iowa.

Sun-rise-summer-hot-temperature

Two words: Air conditioner. Thank goodness for that sweet, sweet air conditioner in my car.

We got home and guess what? That which saved us in the car forsook me at home. Our home air conditioner decided not to work, or at least not fully. My saving grace was a swim meet at which my older daughter and I got to spend the night at a hotel. A nice, cool hotel. The downside of that? The pool where the meet was held was like sitting in a hot house. It was seriously swoon-worthy in the stands.

And we came home last night to sweltering heat — in our house. Finally, around 8, the heat broke and we got a downpour. Last night was cool. Today the air conditioning guys are coming to look at our unit (our house is about 18 years old and probably in need of a new one soon, but hopefully not today!).

During this sweltering heat (and sitting at a swim meet for hours), I started thinking about a book I read this past January — The Dry by Jane Harper. This book made me warm in January in Ohio, so that’s saying something.

A literary mystery, The Dry is set in rural Australia during drought and a heat wave. Everything in this book seems hot, parched, and dry. Harper set the story with such authenticity and substance, helping me really picture Kiewarra (the small farming and ranching town). The heat and lack of moisture helps create an intensity and need that makes the mystery seem all the more pressing.

In Harper’s debute novel, Federal agent Aaron Falk returns to his hometown for the funeral of his childhood best friend. That friend, Luke, was slaughtered in his home, ialong with his wife and their young son. Only their baby was allowed to live.

Falk finds himself drawn into the mystery by Luke’s parents, who ask him to get involved. But returning to Kiewarra throws Aaron right back into his long ago past and the reasons he and his father left the small town — another mystery that went unsolved.

In high school, Luke and Aaron were best friends. Luke had the charisma and good looks that brought the women into their group; first his girlfriend Gretchen, and then the bad girl Ellie, who both boys crushed on. Aaron and Ellie lived and neighboring farms, and both were motherless, so naturally were drawn to each other, although Ellie’s home life was not as stable as Aaron’s.

The end of this foursome was Ellie’s death, a drowning that seems straightforward. But Luke convinced Aaron to lie about their whereabouts. These lies aren’t natural for Aaron, and made him seem guilty. As a result, Aaron and his father are forced out of town by suspicions and threats on their lives.

When he returns, the old suspicions are aroused as he delves into the deaths of Luke and his family. The local sheriff is sure it’s a murder-suicide, although Luke’s mother doesn’t buy it. And neither does Aaron, after some digging.

There’s a lot of holes in this story, and Aaron’s emotions make him slightly inept (or so I hope). The fact that he’s drawn back to the worst time of his life, a time in which he went against his better judgment and lied, a time in which his hormones and emotions ruled his life. Add in the death and his untruths — and his teen years in the small town are jumbled.

Harper is a wonderful storyteller, creating great imagery and substantive characters. But the problems falls in that great storytelling, I guess. She creates dynamic, real people, but magnifies their flaws too much in most cases, or not enough in others. Small town group think is given to much cred; it, and everyone in town seems to hate Aaron because Ellie’s crazy family (drunks and basic ne’er-do-wells) tells them he lied. This didn’t sit right with me — Aaron and his father didn’t have much, but they were hardworking and seemed like good citizens. I didn’t understand why Ellie’s father would be believed over Aaron and his father . . .

The characters were pretty much stock characters in any mystery, and, despite the exaggerated flaws, she really gets into the heart of them. OR she doesn’t get into them at all. The cops and Aaron seem inept in some aspects, and the whole ‘investigation’ is sloppy.

Despite these holes, though, this was one of the best books I read in January (and that doesn’t mean I read bad books!). Harper has a real talent for imagery and description. I couldn’t put the book down: she drew me into Kiewarra and I didn’t want to leave until Aaron was safe. And that’s what I want in a book–to be lost in the pages and the story. I can look back and see the flaws, but at the time I was drawn in fully.

The Dry  will make you hot. And thirsty. Because Harper draws this small Australia town so well. Jane Harper is an author I will be watching.

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