Force of Nature – Jane Harper *****
Jane Harper’s debut suspense thriller The Dry was a good way of delving into the personal background of her Australian police detective Aaron Falk, even if it didn’t really relate to his area of expertise in an AFP agent investigating financial crime and tended to fall back on some unconvincing crime thriller conventions at its conclusion. Force of Nature, Harper’s follow-up to The Dry, integrates much better the crime angle, the financial investigation, Falk’s local knowledge and family background and the nature of the challenges faced in conducting a crime investigation in the remote and dangerous areas of the Australian bushland. And more besides. Force of Nature is a much more confident and assured piece of writing from an author who is establishing her own very distinctive field here.
Tourists and hikers often get lost in the Giralang Ranges bushland, and even ‘Corporate Retreat’ team-building exercises can run into problems, but something goes very wrong with one such expedition organised by the accountancy firm BaileyTennants for some of its senior staff. Two groups, five women and five men, have gone on a four-day hike through this wilderness, but the women are late in returning to their base. When they do arrive they show signs of having suffered some terrible ordeal out there in the bush, and one of the women, Alice Russell, has gone missing.
The reason why this is of interest to Aaron Falk of the AFP, is that BaileyTennants were under investigation for financial mismanagement, and Alice Russell had been providing Falk and his colleague Carmen with incriminating documents and information. The final proofs needed to take a case against the company were due to be delivered to the investigators when Alice went missing, so the timing is clearly suspicious, particularly since the Senior Executives Daniel Bailey and his sister Jill were also both on the Corporate Retreat. Not only, that, but Aaron Falk was the last person Alice called from her mobile phone, leaving a broken and distressed message.
There are a lot of potential dangers out there on the ranges; cold nights, easy disorientation, not to mention that fears and memories are still fresh of Martin Kovac, a convicted killer who preyed on young women in the area; so there are serious concerns about the chances of finding Alice alive and no less troubling concerns that the AFP investigation into BaileyTennants will not be able to proceed without the important documents that Alice had access to. What becomes more apparent as the novel progresses and retraces what happened to the women’s group over those four days, is that there were a lot of tensions, history and grievances being held between the women that was starting to spill over into open hostility.
In addition to being a reference to the survivalist aspect of the novel out in the Australian bushland, there’s a suggestion that the title Force of Nature also refers to the female dynamic at play here. It’s a little bit more than a ‘dynamic’, but it goes beyond bitchiness, competition and hair-pulling, although there is plenty of that as well, not to mention a few rough scuffles that take place between them. Jane Harper however takes time to delve deeper into the character of each of the women, their backgrounds and families, their personal and financial problems, all of it contributing to a situation that is ripe to explode when they are put under highly pressurised circumstances.
Force of Nature is exceptionally well-crafted in its conceptual side then as well as in the practicalities of how the author lays it all out. The writing reveals character details little by little, adding suspicion to the dynamic that keeps the whodunnit question open and fluid, as it ought to be in a book like this, promising further revelations and shocks at the end of every chapter. There’s a requisite love interest aspect hinted at between Aaron and his soon to be married assistant Carmen, but even that is delicately and credibly handled. And although missing documents surface that allow the financial matters to be brought to a conclusion, it doesn’t feel as forced as the late convenient discovery of a diary in The Dry. Everything fits together wonderfully, fluidly and thrillingly and as good as her debut The Dry was, Force of Nature surpasses it on every level.
Force of Nature by Jane Harper is published by Little, Brown on the 8th February 2018, but is available to download in eBook format now.
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