While many people like to party on Dec. 31, I prefer to start the New Year off quietly, curled up with a good book. While there are plenty of excellent ones to choose from, I’d been saving “The Lost Man” (Flatiron Books) to welcome in 2020 (OK … I admit it … I started it before New Year’s Eve). Written by Australia’s Jane Harper, it’s an engrossing novel about families and surviving in the Outback, a “land of extremes where people were either completely fine or they were not.”
But, first … something about this outstanding, and relatively new, author. Harper began her writing career as a business reporter at “The Herald Sun,” a tabloid in Melbourne. She liked to tell friends that she had “more self-improvement activities than a Victorian spinster,” busying herself with hobbies like sewing, ballroom dancing, tennis and piano lessons. There was one project, however, Harper didn’t talk about: She was writing a murder mystery inspired by “Gone Girl,” Agatha Christie and all the other thrillers she’d loved reading since childhood. In April 2015, Harper entered pages she’d written over the past six months into the prestigious Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript. She won, picked up lucrative publishing deals around the globe, and went on to sell more than a million copies worldwide of her debut novel, “The Dry” (2017). A dazzling thriller about a farming community that had been waiting two years for rain, it established her as the new star of crime fiction. Reece Witherspoon’s production company bought the film rights and the movie adaptation will star Australian actor Eric Bana. Both “The Dry” and Harper’s excellent second novel, “Force of Nature” (2018) feature police detective Aaron Falk travelling to a remote setting and becoming entangled in a mystery.
“The Lost Man” is a stand-alone thriller. The story is set in Queensland, outside of a town called Balamara, which is really just a single street. Fifteen hundred kilometers west of Brisbane, certain rules “written in blood” guide life there; break one and the Outback is not just unforgiving, it can be fatal. Helicopters are used to herd cattle and long-range radios are a must in this “perfect sea of nothingness. If someone was looking for oblivion, that was the place to find it.” Outback life is incredibly hard, and the nearest neighbor may be a three-hour drive away. Death from dehydration is a reality and checking in regularly with others is vital.
In this desolate country, the three Bright brothers are the overseers of 3,500 square kilometers of land in Queensland, with hours between each of their homes. Nathan Bright is isolated further still by an ancient offense whose nature Harper doesn’t immediately disclose. He is snubbed by family and townspeople. Once upon a time, Nathan was close to his brothers, Cameron, and the much younger Bub but, after the death of their abusive father, they drifted apart. A total wreck, Nathan manages his decaying portion of the land alone, except for the infrequent visits from his teenage son, Xander. “After Kelly died,” Harper writes of his dog, cruelly poisoned by an anonymous enemy, “he had felt his fingertips starting to slip.”
As the story begins, Nathan receives some shocking news. Cam, age 40, has been found dead beside a stockman’s (ranch hand’s) grave on the family’s vast cattle station in the hottest part of the country. The source of profuse, and persistent, local ghost stories, no one is really sure who is buried there. The two remaining Bright brothers are forced to reconcile and confront the past. Cam’s well-stocked vehicle, filled with food and water as it should be, is found miles away from his body. How Cam, so astute in the ways of Australia, ended up dead forms the core of “The Lost Man.”
Nathan returns to his childhood home, where he sees his mother, as well as the fearsomely capable old hired hand named Harry, and a couple of backpackers who have stopped for work. Perhaps most importantly, he reconnects with Ilse, the woman he once loved but who married Cam.
Nathan and Bub are baffled, as is the cop who’s come all the way from Brisbane to investigate. What was Cam doing at the grave, and why was his Land Cruiser 9 kilometers away with the keys left neatly on the front seat? The Brights’ mother, Liz, is shattered, and Cam’s left Ilse, and two young daughters, Sophie and Lo, behind. And Cam seemed to have it all – an intelligent wife, kids and a prosperous farm. He was well-liked in ways that Nathan and Bub, never could be.
They’re practical folks, though, and there’s a funeral to be organized, plus Christmas is just around the corner. Everyone seems to feel that Cam took his own life, and a quick burial will bring closure during a busy time. Nathan, however, has doubts. There’s an odd dynamic in Cam’s home that he can’t put his finger on, and it appears that Cam had been acting strangely in the weeks before his death, too. Nathan, however, has his own problems. He’s eager to build a better relationship with Xander, who is visiting from Brisbane, and he has a complicated history with Ilse. In the days leading up to the funeral, family secrets begin to surface, and Nathan realizes he never really knew his brother at all.
The author’s masterful narrative places readers right in the middle of a barren and merciless landscape that’s almost as foreign as the moon’s surface. Each of Harper’s books succeed in part because she suggests how geography can be fate. Heat and uninhabited space in her works overpower modernity, logic, technology and even love.
The mystery of Cam’s death is at the dark heart of an unfolding family drama that will leave you reeling. The final pages of the novel are a bit predictable, but Harper is such an effective storyteller, that it doesn’t matter. Although her books are character driven, place is paramount, a complex character that’s brutal and breathtaking. She creates her own unique and multifaceted account of the Outback and its people who live where people don’t live.
Jane Harper has been labeled Australia’s new Queen of Crime. Read “The Lost Man” and you’ll know why.