The Lost Man: A baffling death in the murderous, surreal outback
Thriller: The Lost Man
Little Brown, hardback, 362 pages, €14.99
English-born but raised in Australia, Jane Harper has used that continent's unique landscape, climate and mood to sterling effect in her series of crime stories. The latest, The Lost Man, is her best yet; it's certainly one of the finest novels of any sort, not only within the genre, that I've read in many moons.
In a brief prologue, a man broils to death under the brutal, merciless sun-god which reigns supreme in the Australian sky: how's that for an opening to grab the reader by the shoulders? His name is Cameron Bright - a farmer in the Queensland outback.
Well, he keeps animals and sells them for a living, but "farmer" doesn't really cover it. These are enormous properties, stretching out over thousands of square kilometres, patrolled by jeep and even helicopter. The scale is almost beyond conception.
Cameron died because he was hundreds of klicks from the closest town, or human being. And the searing temperatures mean you couldn't walk more than eight or 10 kilometres anyway, before passing out and expiring from heat exposure. His only hope, a slim one, was to lie beneath an old headstone, crawling around in its shadow like a parody of a sundial, praying that someone would pass by. Nobody did.
Cameron's survivors include his older brother Nathan, struggling owner of the neighbouring property and essentially a hermit after being ostracised by the townspeople a decade previously; younger brother Bub, a slightly simple-minded goofball; wife Ilse, with whom Nathan has history, and their young daughters; foreman Harry, the Bright family aide-de-camp for long years; and mother Liz, a forceful matriarch now falling to pieces at her son's death.
The police and medical examiner can find no signs of foul play, either on Cameron's body or car, parked several miles way. The only conclusion is that, for whatever reason, he chose to walk to this spot and allow the sun to kill him.
It's plausible: all agree that the outback can do things to the mind. The vastness, the dust, the emptiness, the silence, the murderous climate, the absence of almost all life, human or animal, the dreamy strangeness of this surreal environment, almost more alien than earthly: it gets in on you, it absorbs you, it pulls the threads apart.
They're especially worried that Nathan - divorced, deeply in debt, profoundly alone in every way - might end it all. It's even more of a shock, then, that it was Cameron, the handsome, gregarious golden boy, who took his own life.
Or was he the golden boy? Therein, naturally, lies the tale, and Harper tells it superbly well. Unusually for this sort of mystery - in which interpersonal dynamics and family histories are as central, and important, as the whodunnit element - The Lost Man is also a gripping read, literally from the first page.
There's no laborious build-up, no lengthy longueurs draining the spark from the book and the will to go on from the reader. Harper adroitly blends the tension and brisk pace of a thriller with the psychological acuity and stylish prose of literary fiction.
The dialogue snaps and sings with the rough musicality of how people actually speak, the narrative pacing is pitch-perfect. The twists we expect and demand of a mystery are clever, plausible and timed just right.
It's the way Harper captures the physical surroundings which do most to lift The Lost Man above the norm. The vivid descriptions really transplant the reader to the outback; you can almost taste the dust, feel the blinding sunlight, squirm uncomfortably as sweat coats your skin.
Most of all, you get a sense of the sheer, incomprehensible hugeness - and otherness - of the outback: though by the end, it remains as much of a mystery as any unexplained death.
Darragh McManus' novels include 'Shiver the Whole Night Through' and 'The Polka Dot Girl'