The Lost Man is the third book by Jane Harper and, like her previous ones, it’s superb. Expecting it to be another in the Aaron Falk series, it took me a while to understand that the Melbourne detective readers are still getting to know wouldn’t be making an appearance, and not merely because this novel is set in outback Queensland.
The Lost Man, while commencing with a crime, is very much about family, communities, and the relationships we form within and without the blood ties that bind. The story opens with an investigation into the death of Cameron Bright, the middle son of deceased hard man, Carl, and his wife, Liz. A property owner, husband and father or two girls, Cameron’s untimely death and finding his killer takes a back seat. Instead, Cameron’s older brother, Nathan, divorced father of one and a pariah in the local town (local still being three hours distant from Nathan’s home), becomes the lens through which the story of the Bright family – and those in their orbit – unfolds.
The characters are as bleak but also as rich and complex as the landscape that shapes them. For while the people in the story loom large, it’s the vast, hot, arid and dangerous countryside that takes centre stage: it and the legends it inspires. The fact Cameron’s body is found by an icon of one particular legend is surely no co-incidence. But how and why did Cameron die? There appears to be no suspicious circumstances and, like any locals, Cameron knew how deadly nature and the outback were, yet he appears to have died of dehydration. Or did he?
That is the question that lingers in Nathan’s and that of the other stoic and laconic characters that populate the story’s minds – people who don’t say much. Not because they cannot but because they choose instead to keep their thoughts and the secrets that bide in their hearts, homesteads and land, to themselves. But Nathan knows if he wants to learn the truth of his brother’s death, then not only will he have to convince his family and those they trust to talk, but he will have to search his own heart and articulate the fears he’s kept buried for decades.
Stark, raw and so very real, this is a brilliant book. With each page, you feel like you’re on the knife edge of revelation and, if not a revelation, then a terrible threat. I found myself holding my breath or gasping so often. My heart would flutter and I would break out in a cold sweat, so vivid were the descriptions of the climate, the wide-open spaces and the simultaneous beauty and threat they present.
It’s testimony to the power of Harper’s writing that though this book is set in the middle of spacious, horizonless, Woop Woop, it evokes a certain claustrophobia. Like the individual family members, the reader too feels trapped – by the land, the incredible, endless space, the native animals who taunt from beyond the fences, the blistering heat and the walls of the homestead. And, like the characters, escape eludes us until the very last moment.
A magnificent read that was so hard to put down once started. I cannot wait to read what Harper produces next.