Praise for Declan Burke: “Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Review: FORCE OF NATURE by Jane Harper

A three-hour drive east of Melbourne, the Giralang Ranges is a heavily forested wilderness, its demanding terrain the ideal setting for fostering cooperation and boosting morale during a corporate team-building exercise. When Alice Russell fails to return to base after a weekend hike, local law enforcement officers assume she got lost or injured, and is awaiting rescue. Federal Agent Aaron Falk and his partner Carmen Cooper suspect otherwise, however; Alice is a whistle-blower with dirt on the BaileyTennants accountancy firm, which Falk and Cooper believe is a front for laundering the proceeds of criminal activity. Was the team-building exercise an elaborate ruse to lure Alice Russell into a remote region where she could be silenced for good?
  Australian author Jane Harper’s debut The Dry was published to widespread acclaim last year, and deservedly won a number of prizes. Force of Nature (Little, Brown) is an accomplished follow-up which reprises a number of elements that contributed to The Dry’s appeal, a gripping tale in which the landscape is as pitiless an antagonist as any human killer. The story opens with the news of Alice Russell’s disappearance, which brings Falk and Cooper to the Giralang Ranges, where they proceed to interview the women who accompanied Alice on the hike. Their investigation is interspersed with flashbacks to the hike itself, as the group of five women – representing the various strata of the BaileyTennants’ hierarchy – begin in a mood of cheery optimism before quickly degenerating into bickering, open loathing and physical confrontation as the wilderness strips away their pretensions to civilised professionalism.
  It’s an absorbing tale, in part a contemporary psychological thriller and partly a clever reworking of conventions borrowed from the Golden Age of the mystery novel. The lodge where Alice’s hiking companions wait to hear of her fate could easily be a country house in a Ngaio Marsh whodunit, with Falk and Cooper an Inspector Alleyn-style duo interrogating the BaileyTennants employees as to what exactly happened out on the Ranges. Meanwhile, the flashback sections quickly establish the fact that Alice was an abrasive, ruthless co-worker. Her behaviour might have been just about tolerable back in the city where Alice could exert an artificial authority, but with the group lost, running out of water and scrabbling for survival, a variety of tensions erupt into strong motives for murder.
  The plot is sufficiently labyrinthine to keep the most jaded of crime fiction fans guessing, but it’s Harper’s evocation of landscape that elevates Force of Nature above run-of-the-mill thrillers: ‘The gum trees gave way and they came face to face with a magnificent vista of rolling hills and valleys, stretching out beneath them right to the horizon. Shadows from shifting clouds created an ocean of green that rippled like waves.’ Something malevolent, however, lurks behind the beauty: ‘Beth wasn’t sure if the others had sensed it, but earlier she had felt the faintest stirrings in the atmosphere. Something base and elemental and almost primitive, where a bit of stale bread and cheese became a prize worth fighting for.’ Even the sanguine Falk, a hardnosed detective not given to flights of fancy, reflects that the Giralang Ranges is an ‘isolated terrain, where trees grew thick and dense on land that was reluctant to let anything escape.’
  Apart from one glaringly unnecessary red herring, Force of Nature is a powerful tale exploring the fragility of society, a compellingly plausible account of how quickly the veneer of civilisation can be stripped away when human instinct is reduced to flight or fight. Believe the hype: Jane Harper is the real deal. ~ Declan Burke

  This review was first published in the Irish Examiner.

No comments: