Dead men will give up their secrets eventually.
A man has been found dead in the middle of the outback, miles from shade and water, at a point known locally as ‘the stockman’s grave’. What is unclear is why the man was out in the wild without provisions, particularly when his car is found miles away, full of food and water.
‘The headstone threw a small shadow. It was the only shade in sight and its blackness was slippery, swelling and shrinking as it ticked around like a sundial. The man had crawled, then dragged himself as it moved. He had squeezed into that shade, contorting his body into desperate shapes, kicking and scuffing the ground as fear and thirst took hold.’
The dead man is Cameron Bright, a popular man, whose family has lived in the area for years. Like her first two novels, this is a superbly-plotted read, perfectly executed by a writer in full control of her material. Like The Dry before it, The Lost Man begins with a death, an event which raises myriad questions. Harper is brilliant at unwinding a trail of clues and insights into behaviours shaped by the isolation of the Australian outback. This time, her sphere of her focus is even tighter, even more claustrophobic, as she examines the impact of such a harsh existence on the Bright family. Once again, the Australian climate is a major figure in events and forms the backdrop to the unpacking of a family history which has left long shadows. This has been a very male world and, perhaps more than her previous novels, the reality of life for women in the outback is brought into stark relief.
Fans of Aaron Falk, Harper’s police detective in The Dry and Force of Nature, will have to be satisfied with a brief glimpse – I loved the reference which suggests a family connection to the town we visited in her debut novel – but Nathan and his son Xander, both quick to question initial appearances, make for fascinating protagonists in this family drama, and Harper is obviously able to ring the changes with ease.
I read it in one sitting, swept along by the unfolding plot and the superb characterisation of people living in such a hostile environment. Harper has once again created a gripping thriller, and has confirmed her place as a leading player in the genre.
My thanks to Caolinn Douglas at Little, Brown for my review copy.