Thursday 17 October 2019

Jane Harper explains why rural isolation and extreme heat are core elements in her Australian outback mysteries

As a Reese Witherspoon-backed film adaptation of her first novel begins filming, Melbourne-based Jane Harper talks about the core elements in her outback mysteries

Jane Harper's third novel captures the claustrophobia as well as the vastness of the outback
Jane Harper's third novel captures the claustrophobia as well as the vastness of the outback
Diversions: Jane Harper's third novel captures the claustrophobia as well as the vastness of the outback

Joanne Hayden

In Jane Harper's novels, the Australian landscape is much more than a setting. Harper describes the topography of her adopted country as "a gift for writers," and it's a gift she puts to excellent use.

"It's such a huge country," she says, on the phone from Melbourne where she lives with her husband and young daughter, "and there's so many different landscapes you can draw on. I love the fact that it can be very isolated, and that really lends itself to books that have mystery elements, and I love the fact that the landscape can become part of the plot so it actually shapes who characters are and can inform their behaviour."

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It's night-time for Harper when we speak - 11 hours ahead - but she talks energetically and affably about her writing process and the surprise of literary success. Seeing the books in shops "never gets old," she says. She's unpretentious and, I'd wager, pretty unflappable. In a previous life she was a journalist, a profession that gave her some insight into the detective work her main characters undertake.

Though readers of her latest novel, The Lost Man, would be forgiven for thinking that she grew up in outback Queensland - so vivid is her depiction of the parched, barely peopled terrain - Harper was born in Manchester in 1980, where she spent her early childhood. When she was eight, her family moved to Australia for six years, before returning to the UK.

In 2008, already an experienced journalist, she moved back to Australia to work at the Geelong Advertiser and later the Herald Sun in Melbourne, where she met her husband, fellow journalist Peter Strachan. In 2016, her first novel, The Dry established her as the new star of Australian crime fiction, winning several prizes and becoming a New York Times bestseller. Reece Witherspoon's production company bought the film rights and the movie adaptation of The Dry, starring Australian actor Eric Bana, is due to begin shooting in Victoria this month.

Both The Dry and Harper's second novel, Force of Nature, feature police detective Aaron Falk travelling to a remote setting - his hometown in the first instance - and becoming embroiled in a mystery. The Lost Man is a standalone book but like Harper's other fiction, it explores the impact of rural isolation and extreme heat, opening with a body lying by a tombstone - the only landmark for miles.

The dead man is Cameron Bright, one of three brothers who run enormous cattle properties in a region where next-door neighbours can live a three-hour drive apart. The circumstances of Cameron's death don't make sense - there is no sign of violence - but as in all good crime fiction, nothing is as it first appears.

It's an evocative, sharply written and expertly plotted novel, subtle in how it navigates its themes of misogyny, retribution and guilt. The spectre of climate change is also there, so glaring it barely needs to be referenced. In the best possible way, Harper blindsides her readers again and again.

"I always know the ending in quite a lot of detail, I always know what I'm aiming for and that the core plot is solid," she says. "It's easier then to start weaving in the red herrings, the diversions."

Part of the novel's power stems from how it captures the claustrophobia as well as the vastness of the outback. Because there are so few people around, the characters are doubly dependent on those who are there. The stakes are automatically high when the nearest cop is hundreds of miles away and when anything more than a quick walk outside means death from heat exposure and dehydration. And because Harper's instincts as a writer are so honed, her "diversions" are often stories in themselves: the decade-long shunning of Nathan by the minuscule local community - his punishment for refusing to assist a neighbour - and a rape story in which the victim is disbelieved.

Harper's background in journalism means she understands the importance of thorough research. For The Lost Man, she read memoirs by people who lived in similar areas to the Brights and, where possible, spoke to the writers and their contacts. She went to outback Queensland in the middle of summer and met a retired cop called Neale McShane who, for 10 years, from a small town called Birdsville, policed an area the size of the UK on his own.

"He drove me 900km across the outback to his town, told me stories and answered my questions and introduced me to people, so it was a really incredible experience and I got a huge insight from that," Harper says.

She needed to check some facts - how high frequency radios work, where the locals get their food supplies. She also ran the story of Nathan's shunning past McShane, who thought that in reality, outback residents might be even less lenient.

"When you're in a really isolated area, I think you become a lot more aware of how power dynamics in relationships play out," Harper says.

All of her novels play with power dynamics but the way in which The Lost Man unpicks them is particularly current. Against an unforgiving landscape, her story has the qualities of an epic, its plot specific, its themes universal.

"I spend a lot of time thinking about what are these characters going through, how is their background contributing to the people they are, and what kind of issues are they facing, and what kind of things are going to be coming up in their lives?" Harper says.

"That's where the themes start to come out. They're real things that people do face and we read about and we discuss in our own lives."

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