It’s a Mystery: “Life is pleasant. Death is peaceful. It’s the transition that’s troublesome.”
By Jane Harper
Flatiron Books, 2017
The Dark Room
By Jonathan Moore
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017
The Australian crime novel has had a sparse presence in the U.S. Going back to the Golden Age, one of its few luminaries is Arthur Upfield. His Detective-Inspector Napoleon “Bony” Bonaparte, half British and half Aboriginal, has appeared in twenty-nine Upfield novels. The first, called “The Barrakee Mystery,” appeared in 1929. His second “The Sands of Windee” (1931) was selected for H.R.F. Keating’s Crime & Mystery: The 100 Best Books (1987). For Keating: “It is the combination of European logicality with aboriginal intuition and observation that puts Bony on a par with Sherlock Holmes or Poe’s Dupin.” Upfield died in 1964. His last Bonaparte novel was “The Lake Frome Monster,” published posthumously in 1966. There was also an Australian television series in the seventies based on the Bonaparte character.
Enter Australian author Jane Harper. Her debut novel The Dry is a winner destined for widespread appeal. It opens when Melbourne-based federal agent Aaron Falk returns to his rural hometown, Kiewarra for the funeral of his best friend, Luke Hadler who apparently committed suicide after killing his wife and 6-year-old son. Burning a hole in Falk’s pocket is the terse note he received from Gerry, Luke’s father: “Luke lied. You lied. Be at the funeral.”
The Kiewarra Falk comes back to is decimated by a severe drought. Poverty and alcoholism are rampant. It’s a town ravaged by deprivation that Falk and his father were run out of two decades ago because Falk was accused of murdering his girlfriend, Ellie Deacon. Luke gave him an alibi. The question is who besides Luke’s father knew the alibi was bogus? Turns out that what’s nagging at Gerry is whether his son gave Falk the alibi to protect himself. What’s bothering Falk is that, despite the grisly scenario and its obvious conclusions, it all seems to him to be seriously off kilter.
At the funeral as Falk stares at the three coffins:
He thought about the dark-eyed girl, and a lie forged and agreed on twenty years ago as fear and teenage hormones pounded through his veins….How short was the road from that decision to this moment? The question ached like a bruise.
Luke had his dark side but killing his family? And what about the unsolved Ellie Deacon murder? Could Luke be guilty of such perfidy?
Back on the grounds of his old primary school, Falk was again struck by the feeling that he could be thirty years in the past…. Luke had been a good ally to have back then. He was one of those kids with an easy smile and a sharp wit who could navigate the jungle law of the playground effortlessly…. He was generous with his time, his jokes, his belongings. His parents. Everyone was welcome at the Hadler household. He was loyal almost to a fault. When Falk had once taken a stray football in the face, he’d had to drag Luke off the kid who’d kicked it. Falk, tall and awkward then, was always aware he was lucky to have Luke on his side.
When Luke’s grief-stricken parents beg Falk to stay and uncover the truths behind what happened twenty years ago and the murder/suicide of their son’s family, he can hardly refuse. As he undertakes a painful investigation, he gets help from the local cop, Sgt. Greg Raco. Raco becomes a welcome ally against an increasingly hostile community. As they dig, they manage to unravel many secrets new and old that send shock waves in every direction. Falk is forced to confront his past and cope with the present in unimaginable ways.
Harper has wrought a beautifully constructed, chilling page turner that you won’t soon forget. It’s a multilayered, stiletto sharp read. The Dry is a novel that packs a punch as blistering as the Australian sun it’s set under.
We go from Down Under to that fabled City by the Bay whose nighttime streets Dashiell Hammett’s hardboiled sleuth, Sam Spade, worked so well.
“San Francisco, whose dark intensity limns a crime-ridden city where the thoughtful man could never find a home and might as well, then, become a freelance, if lonely, truth seeker.”
Sam Francisco is also the turf homicide inspector Gavin Cain inhabits in Jonathan Moore’s The Dark Room. It’s a splendid follow up to his hair-raising noir The Poison Artist (2016). As it begins, Cain and his new partner, Grassley, stand at the grave of a young boy, Christopher Hanley, watching the exhumation of his coffin. They’re following a tip that’s connected to a cold case dating back to the mid-1980s. Before the coffin is opened, Cain is preemptively summoned by his boss, Lieutenant Nagata. She orders him to leave the Hanley excavation to Grassley; she’s sending a helicopter for him. The copter and his destination, City Hall, indicate that someone far above his lieutenant is calling the shots. When he lands, Nagata is waiting for him along with an FBI agent, Karen Fischer. She will be his contact in what Nagata makes clear is now a top priority matter. After the introductions, she propels him toward Mayor Harry Castelli’s office where, without much preamble, the mayor hands Cain a manila folder:
The mayor leaned forward. …”Let’s make one thing absolutely clear.”
Castelli took the folder again, holding it up without opening it.
“I don’t know what this is,” Castelli said. “And I don’t have anything to hide.”
Usually the first thing a witness said was a lie. This wasn’t starting well for the mayor.
Castelli shows Cain four photographs he’s received: the first, a knockout blonde who is clearly terrified; the second, pills, handcuffs, an open flask, a man’s wallet and keys; the third, the woman drinking from the flask; and last, the woman naked and drugged into oblivion. The letter that comes with them is chilling: worse revelations are on the way unless the mayor commits suicide!
His honor, sweating and swilling bourbon, claims he has no idea who the woman is. Nor does he have a clue as to who wants him dead. Over and over, all Cain gets is several versions of: “I don’t know anything. Except that it’s got nothing to do with me.”
All Castelli wants Cain to do is hook up with the FBI and find the girl. Cain and Fischer tenaciously search for the girl’s identity and that of the blackmailer, while Cain, via Grassley, keeps his eye on the exhumation. This leads to a stunning revelation: on top of Hanley’s body is a woman’s. Her features are completely indistinguishable but she had blonde hair and had gone into the coffin naked and still alive! The two cases are intertwined. By the climax, everything gets monstrously turned upside down. Moore keeps the suspense at a fever pitch until the very end.
The Dark Room is a complex, edgy, elegant novel that is at once macabre, menacing and mesmerizing. Moore calls this book “the center panel in a triptych” that started with The Poison Artist. The third, The Night Market is scheduled for 2018. I can’t wait.
Irma Heldman is a veteran publishing executive and book reviewer with a penchant for mysteries. One of her favorite gigs was her magazine column “On the Docket” under the pseudonym O. L. Bailey.