This debut is good, very good. That’s probably enough to recommend it as a read. The Dry is a tightly plotted crime fiction, deeply embedded in an Australian rural setting, and full of characters that populate our country towns: the town barman who came to town as a backpacker and never left; the single mum and her son, whose father passed through town and didn’t come back; the teacher or police officer sent to a rural posting and trying to make the best of it. And secrets! A police officer’s badge means nothing when everybody knows each other’s darkest secrets.
Aaron Falk is a Federal policeman working in white collar financial crime investigation when he is summoned back to Kiewarra, the town he grew up in, by the father of his boyhood best friend, Luke Hadler. Because Luke is dead. A shotgun to the mouth. His wife Karen and son Billy also dead. An apparent murder-suicide, quickly accepted by a town of drought-stricken farmers envying the Hadlers’ fate.
The local policeman Raco and Luke’s father don’t believe the story though. That’s where Aaron comes in. He and Raco conduct their own unofficial investigation that turns up more than clues to multiple potential murderers, but also unearths the reason Aaron and his father had to flee Kiewarra twenty years before.
Aaron’s girlfriend, Ellie Deacon, is found drowned. Luke and Aaron concoct an alibi that they were together. But in this town, there are people who know the truth and keep it hidden until the right time to reveal it.
As Aaron and Raco sift through the townsfolk’s alibis, they bring to light a town that is falling apart, with empty spaces where families should be. There is Gretchen, the once most popular girl at school who is a single mum; Ellie Deacon’s father and her cousin Grant live alone, her mother having run away from town when she was a teenager; Aaron’s mother died in childbirth; neighbour Jamie Sullivan lives with his Gran. “Cooped up in the middle of nowhere with no-one but the old lady. That house was like a weird museum.”
Harper pries open people’s homes, exposing the detritus that people construct their idea of ‘home’ with. Homes are either ‘happy’ full of family, or they have something wrong with them. When Aaron visits his childhood home: “It was just another building in need of repair. There was nothing of him or his dad left there.” Luke’s mother is given the unenviable task of clearing away the objects that filled the Hadlers’ home. But for now, it stood as a memorial to the kind of ‘home’ it had been: “The pillowcases still had the shadows of dents in them. Whatever Luke Hadler had been doing in the days before he and his family died, Falk thought, it hadn’t been sleeping on the couch. This was definitely a room for two.”
Ultimately, The Dry talks of the desperate need to hold onto family, because without them there is no home. There is no hope, or continuity of connection to place.