The Dry, Jane Harper

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In the summer of 1994 the national Scout jamboree was in Perth and for those scouts unable to make the trip Victorian scouts held a smaller “jamborette” at Green Lake in the Mallee, coincidentally, adjacent to one of the three blocks farmed by my grandfather and after him by my uncle, only four years my senior, Les.

The Mallee is sandy country on a limestone base, flat except for low sandhills lightly bound by eucalypt scrub and wheat stubble. In bad years the cleared soil blows in the wind. During the Depression and again in 1984 the prevailing hot summer northerlies created huge dust storms blanketing Melbourne 400 km away with red Mallee dust.

Green Lake is (was) not natural, just a shallow depression in low eucalypt and acacia bushland, fed by the channel system which brought water up from the Grampians. Gone now I hear, converted to pipes. We had huge family picnics there every summer, all Granddad’s brothers and sisters and all their children, and us four boys, the first of the grandchildren.

On the Friday before the jamborette I drove Gee, an enthusiastic scout, and two of her friends up from Melbourne, to stay overnight at Les’s before going on to the camp. Up the Calder Highway through Bendigo, through Charlton, Culgoa where Grandma’s brother, Uncle George  (Cox) bred champion clydesdales and you could sometimes see huge colts gambolling clumsily by the highway, to Berriwillock. Turn left, past the little weatherboard Anglican church, where mum’s younger sister was married while we boys sat outside in the car being fed sausage rolls by the church ladies, out the Woomelang road, turn right at Uncle Bert’s – ‘Wheatlands’, my great grandmother’s home farm – then left again before the bush block with scrubby native pines and bulokes where we’d get our Christmas trees, past the Austerberry’s. Dirt roads now, hard packed sand, graded smooth, pulling up at Les’s side gate, padlocked, round to the front, up the half mile drive to the old familiar farmhouse surrounded by peppercorns, from Brazil I think, not native but endemic throughout all of Australia’s wheat farming country, and a few sugar gums.

The first time I had made this trip for 30 years, the first (and last) time ever as a driver, but ingrained indelibly in my mind by 15 years of school holiday after school holiday, sitting behind my father, 3 boys across the back seat of the Prefect, the FJ, the EK, our first new car, baby B4 in the front between mum and dad. Granddad and Grandma did their shopping in Sea Lake but went to church in Berriwillock, my uncles played football in the green and gold, and once memorably we went to a gymkhana there where Grandma and all the other ladies chased a greased pig.

Three of Dad’s dozen or so schools were in the Mallee, the first, Sea Lake as I wrote recently, but then Underbool west of Ouyen where B2 was born and from 1961-63, Murrayville, further west again and so we would drive, in hundred degree heat in summer, 68 miles across to Ouyen then 80 miles down the Calder Highway to Sea Lake. Just mallee scrub, paddocks of wheat and oats, paddy melons and tumbleweeds. Identifying and counting cars to pass the endless hours – weren’t all hours endless back then.

Oh, the book review. You really should stop now or jump over to Emma at Book Around the Corner (here). Emma enjoys Harper’s crime fiction and writes a sensible review, which is more than you will get from me.

The setting of The Dry (2016) is a fictitious small sheep farming community, Kiewarra, though not so small it doesn’t have a high school, “five hours from Melbourne”. The number of towns in Victoria that fit this definition is just two, Robinvale and Ouyen in the north-west, the Mallee. Five hours in any other direction takes you into NSW or SA.

Robinvale is on the Murray and has a twin town, Euston across the river. Farming is irrigation dependent – grapes and citrus. Which leaves Ouyen, to the west, semi-desert, mallee scrub country, wheat farming mostly but some sheep. Dry and flat, salt lakes, no rivers. Kiewarra on the other hand has a wide river which normally burbles and rushes along, a lookout hill with a 100m high cliff, and late in the story the bare “fields” which surround Kiewarra become dense bush, tinder dry, threatening to engulf the town with bushfire. Any descriptions are plain vanilla generic – houses, fields, trees, river (and yes “fields” really annoys me).

Even the title is annoying, “the Dry” in Australia is actually winter in the tropics. “The Drought” or “The Long Dry” would have been more accurate given that that is what Harper (or the marketing people who came up with the title) meant, but who am I to argue when sales have been so good.

As a crime fiction novel The Dry is not bad, though in a genre renowned for meticulous technical accuracy her ‘police procedural’ errors are probably unacceptable. But the story is well told and the characters engaging. I especially enjoyed the back and forth between twenty years ago and now, flagged by italic script in the book, but not of course in the reading. It’s the geography that makes me mad. You’d have to think that the closest Jane Harper has been to the Bush is the observation deck of the Rialto with a telescope and the only experience she has of drought and farming is the stories she’s read in the Melbourne Murdoch tabloid, the Herald-Sun.

When the Mallee was divided up for settlement one block was one square mile, 640 acres. These days mechanisation means that an average farm is at least five times that, yet a big farm in Kiewarra is 200 acres. No wonder the farmers are desperate. The basis of the novel is that the ongoing drought has led one farmer to a murder/suicide which his parents ask his Melbourne-based former school mate and Federal policeman to investigate. The school-mate, Falk, around whom Harper is building a series, was blamed for the death 20 years earlier of his friend Ellie who was found at the bottom of the river with stones in her pocket, and he and his father were run out of town.

By the end of the book both Ellie’s death and the deaths of the farming family are explained, with a few unexpected twists along the way, the tension builds nicely, and yes the treatment of Falk by his former townsfolk has a “Deliverance” feel to it. But. The title makes the claim that this is Australian writing in the long tradition of Bush Realism dating from before the Bulletin, Steele Rudd, Henry Lawson and Joseph Furphy, back to the mid-1800s and the women we discussed in Gen 1 Week. And it is a spurious claim. Harper has appropriated the tropes of Australian bush fiction to make a setting for her crime fiction and she has done it really, really badly.

 

Jane Harper, The Dry, Macmillan Audiobook, 2016. Read by Steve Shannahan

I knew someone else as well as Emma had reviewed it. Kim at Reading Matters writes: “Quite frankly, The Dry, is an astonishing debut. It’s an exceptional crime novel, one of the best I’ve read in years.”

 

39 thoughts on “The Dry, Jane Harper

  1. That’s a frank review, and I appreciate it. I listened to The Dry and couldn’t get into it. I have Force of Nature there if I want. It’s premise appeals. Nothing to lose I guess – this is the beauty of library borrowing – and I never mind hitting the stop and delete button if I’m not caught up in the story in the first chapter.

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    • You’re a country girl, I’m sure you could feel the author’s lack of familiarity with Australian farm life. And all those farmers spending all their time shooting rabbits. You say ‘hit delete’ – do you borrow your audio books on-line. I tried and couldn’t get the file to play. “All you can read” I hated. Project Gutenberg though has some good books, I recently listened to Silas Marner (and forgot to include it in my listing).

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      • Bolinda digital offers a great experience through your library service’s website. Some weeks I’ll get through four or more books this way. You can put the app on your smart phone and have two weeks to listen, and can renew once. I use a Bluetooth head seat because I hate having wires as I’m often working at something as I listen. But for you, behind the wheel, wires wouldn’t be a problem. I always make sure I get headphones with a pause button and the +/- will put your track back or forward.
        An MP3 player will function the same as a smart phone, but I think you’d need to do it via a pc.
        I used to use an iPod before I got the Bluetooth headset which freed me up from carrying the device on my body (within range of course)! Feel free to ask any more questions.

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      • You want one with a screen so you can find your stuff. I recommend the iPod nano. It will be over $150 but will last for years and considering the books are free (though authors still get royalties), it’s a great deal. Good luck.

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  2. 200 acres, really? Really?
    That’s ridiculous. Even I know that’s ridiculous, and I know nothing about Australian farming except that The Collins Street Farmer couldn’t make a living on 300 acres in Macclesfield, which is much better country than anything in the Mallee.
    But you see, ‘field’ is the clue. It’s been written for an international and urban market, whose concept of farm is entirely different to the modern reality in Australia.

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    • Yes, ‘field’ is the clue. Harper has only recently moved to Australia and I think she would have done better to stick to an urban setting. I’m not sure she even realised 500 km puts you in the Mallee, if she had she may have used somewhere closer and a bit more familiar.

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      • Good point by Lisa. I don’t seem to be able to reply below her comment. While the responsibility is ultimately with the Author, Editors are usually paid well to ‘know their stuff’ – otherwise what is the point?

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      • When Lisa and Sue start talking on their own blogs, exchanging comments, the comments on my phone indent until they’re only one character wide. When I mentioned this, years ago, someone told me how to restrict the number of indents in my own blog, which I have done, though I forget how.

        Anyway, writers, editors, they’re all from North Fitzroy aren’t they? (Except the Tasmanians of course).

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    • Dare I say it’s probably because she’s English and for whatever reason her editor hasn’t picked up on the use of the word? (I get laughed at when I say paddock here: apparently that suggests a very poor class of field.)

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  3. I’m not a reader of crime or mysteries but I did enjoy this book – I think because I didn’t read it ‘critically’. Ordinarily, geographical or factual errors would stand out and irritate me (eg. size of the farm) but I suspect I just got caught up in the mystery and was enjoying the fact that I hadn’t guessed what was going to happen by the end of the first chapter.

    A friend lent me the second book – Force of Nature – as well as not being a crime reader, I’m also not a reader of series (short attention span!) – haven’t got to it yet but not adverse…

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    • I thought that as crime fiction The Dry, as you say, held the reader’s interest, and Falk makes a good central character for a series. I really think though that if she is to compete in the big leagues she should get her police procedures, guns and forensics absolutely spot on, and she’s not there yet.

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      • I reckon that part of the reason the book has done so well is that is being read by ‘non-crime readers’ like myself. Why? Good publicist maybe!

        But as you say, the devil is in the detail and for readers who are across those details, it can be infuriating (and distracting) to detect errors. I remember reading a book years ago that seemed to me to have countless implausible details. The straw that broke the camel’s back was mention of a male tortoiseshell cat. Now I’ve done a fair bit of study in genetics but even for the entry level biology/ genetics student, you know that a male tortoiseshell cat is very, very, very rare (it is a genetic mutation that produces a cat with three sex chromosomes – XXY – so it appears male with t/shell pattern but genetically is sterile – the t/shell pattern is only produced with two X chromosomes, hence in female cats). Probably no editor would ever know that but it was enough for me to discard the book!

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      • It’s similar with ginger cats being predominantly male, although female ginger cats aren’t as genetically rare as male t’shells (the ginger colour is carried on X so males, with just one X express one colour whereas females, with XX would need two genes for ginger – not common because ginger is recessive, but possible).
        Okay, I’ll stop polluting your page with cat genetics now Bill!

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      • I didn’t know about the cat fact Kate W tells us about below. Very interesting!
        I’ll tell you something though – sometimes we writers research well and yet it is still not enough. A reviewer once said that I hadn’t done my research because I put a restaurant in a different street – albeit in the right suburb. What the reviewer did not know is that in the era I wrote about, the restaurant was exactly where I said it was. A lesson for me though – we try not to make our research obvious but, in that case, I probably should have slipped in something like ‘long before they reopened in such and such a street’.
        A great review anyway of ‘The Dry’ and some interesting conversations here.

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    • Thanks Karenlee. I’m glad you knew your stuff well enough to get it right, even though it seemed wrong (to someone anyway). I think Harper makes two completely different sets of errors. 1. the geography – and no doubt she would argue that Kiewarra was meant to be generic and the 500 km was arbitrary. My answer to that is that she has inserted herself into a tradition of Australian writing that she just doesn’t get. And 2. police stuff. Maybe we’re all generalists here, but I would expect crime fiction specialists to pick her up on some of the forensics which I think she got wrong and which it is hard to discuss without spoilers. And just a minor point but the town’s police sergeant transferred from Adelaide. How?

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  4. Thanks for the link to my review. As you can see I really loved this book. I read it not long after it had been published in Australia (long before its success) and thought it was a refreshing take on the crime novel: a good hook, an intriguing setting & lots of not too obvious social commentary about small town life in rural Australia. I read it in one sitting (on a Greek beach) so it clearly had enough narrative pace to keep me turning the pages but perhaps I turned them too fast to pick up on the errors you noticed. I’m not sure the author has a responsibility to uphold an Australian tradition (whatever that is), surely she just has to write a book that people enjoy for whatever reason?

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    • My argument is that by the book’s name and setting she has asserted herself into a tradition which she does not understand and yet which she needs to sustain the basis of her novel – that the Bush can be unforgiving and that a farmer’s murder/suicide in that context is understandable.

      It is just the same as if she had set the novel in Naples and expected us to derive from that name the sea, the buildings, the people she was unable or unwilling to describe.

      Anyway, I’m glad you enjoyed the book, I get surprisingly little satisfaction from writing negative reviews.

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      • OK, I get what you mean now.

        (And yes, I like the word creek, too, but have had to remove it from my vocabulary here as that’s another word the Brits laugh at. LOL. )

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  5. Fantastic review and discussion. Thanks for the link to my billet.

    Of course, being French, I missed all the things that irrated you or that you found implausible.

    I don’t speak in acres, so I never realised that 200 is small.

    I didn’t try to locate Kiewarra, for me it was like St Mary Mead : does it need to exist? Now if the landscape she describes is nowhere to be seen in Australia, that’s another issue.

    Why is that a problem that the sergeant was transferred from Adelaïde? Are the police linked to a specific State?

    Oddly, I did notice that the title was weird and I asked why it wasn’t The Drought. Yay! My English is improving!

    I can understand why it got on your nerves. This is why I tend to avoid foreign books set in Paris. I’m always afraid they’ll be full of clichés or inacurrate.

    PS : Don’t read Force of Nature. You’ll probably get mad about the description of the outback.

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    • I’m not sure about “Bill’s very informative review”, maybe his ” very opinionated review”.

      Roughly 2.5 acres per hectare. An average wheat farm would be around 2,000 hectares I think. A 200 acre (or 80 hectare) farm on good country would only be productive if it was used for dairying.

      I would have accepted a generic location if Harper had attempted to describe the landscape – but she uses the words fields, trees without any qualifiers, except the bush becomes dense when she needs it to catch fire (not so dense we can’t see other orange coated searchers but too dense for those other searchers to see or hear the drama going on in their midst).

      Your English is excellent.

      Exactly!

      No!!!!!!!!!! Not the Outback.

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    • Missed one question: Yes. Police forces are state based. I suppose police sometimes leave one state and seek to be employed in another, but what that would do to their rank and seniority I’m not sure.

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  6. Interesting post – fascinating comments! I read this book, and enjoyed it, but being city-bred I didn’t catch any of your geographic inaccuracies. I’ve also read Harper’s next one, Force of Nature, but enjoyed it less. Not so long ago police who transferred interstate usually lost rank, I think, but these days not so much. I think it depends on which states. Speaking of inaccuracies, I once read a book written by an American that had Cook charting the Australian coastline in 1717. This was pre-Internet, and I’ve always suspected that an Australian had told her the actual date (1770) and she had misheard. I’ve long forgotten the book, but not the error!

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    • Yes, you’ve gotta love a long and engaged comment stream! I’m not sure I’ll remember all that about cats and canaries. Youngest daughter says I read with the front of my brain and nothing gets down the back. I feel very territorial about the Australian Bush – obviously – and hate it when a writer gets it wrong, or in Harper’s case, doesn’t even try. Thanks for clearing up police transfers. Emma, Raco may have transferred over from the South Australian force.

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  7. Considering how implausible I found the premise of Force of Nature (accidently read it before the Dry), I’m pretty sure based on your review, there is no chance I’m going to like the Dry. Imagination is all good and well but write what you know!

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    • I take it from your ‘accidently’ that you try and read series in order – I’m always happy to read them in whatever order they come to me. Maigret’s an instance. He retires, he’s young again, in the earliest books we don’t see Mme Maigret at all and so on.

      I guess Harper’s premise in The Dry is that it is understandable that a desperate farmer would kill his family and himself. Harper’s problem is that she must state that baldly, she doesn’t know enough to be able to describe the conditions that produced the desperation.

      I get the impression that The Dry is better than Force of Nature, so no, you should probably read something you would like better.

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  8. I don’t plan to read The dry or probably The force of nature, unless my reading group schedules one. The first suggestion to schedule The dry was knocked back so I suspect that’s it for awhile.

    BTW I don’t think comments on mine have ever got that narrow, as I have something like a 3 indent limit. If you try to reply past that on the blog there’s no option to Reply, so you have to start a new comment and hope people work out which thread you are commenting on. However, if you respond via the wordpress notification dropdown (which means you have to be a WordPress user), you can reply, but it keeps the display to that third indent level. Does that make sense?

    BTW2 Talked about you a lot today as we drove from Canberra to Raymond Terrace – a whole 460kms in one day! There were lots of trucks on the road which brought you to mind.

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  9. BTW1 I guess it was Lisa’s blog then. I forget what you were talking about now. When that happens I have to wait until I can open my laptop to reply. Another first world problem.

    BTW2. Not such a bad drive now that it’s freeway all the way, except for Pennant Hills Rd. I’ve done it all recently (except Canberra) 2 or 3 times. Have always loved the crossings over the Hawkesbury.

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    • No, it’s that Pennant Hills Road – just 7kms but feels longer! Such narrow lanes, shop-lined. That’s the area I got my license in so I know it well, clunkety clunkety clunkety up that road, eh?

      But you’re right about the Hawkesbury. As we were driving that section on Thursday, I said to Mr Gums, “I love this area.” It really is beautiful isn’t it?

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  10. No this is not a book review. I haven’t read “The Dry”. I am intrigued by your comments so may have a look see.
    I remember a reasonably sunny Melbourne day standing out the front of the main entrance of Flinders St Station. Some clouds were coming over slowly darkening the sky. The air and sky started to turn different shades of brown. Before long the sun had completely disappeared. Most people stopped to watch this phenomenon. The effect last quite sometime. It was a huge wave of top soil from the country falling over the city. If you don’t experience some things it can be challenging to write about them.

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    • Happy to have you comment whether you read the book or not. I missed the big dust storm of ’83 – I was in Melb in Jan. and moved there to live in July. But a couple of weeks ago strong winds lifted all the sand from dry paddocks, blanketing the whole of South Aust and into NSW, there were places where visibility was down to a couple of truck lengths. Mum remembers the pre-War dust storms in the Mallee quite vividly – apparently you can (or could) even see red Mallee dust in NZ glaciers.

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