Australian author Jane Harper captivated our attention in 2016 with the publication of her debut novel The Dry, and then eager fans were rewarded with her second novel, Force of Nature. Her latest crime fiction, The Lost Man (Pan Macmillan 2018), is another well-plotted and tense psychological thriller with well-developed characters and an immersive sense of place.
It is perhaps worth noting some of the similarities – and the differences – between The Lost Man and Harper’s previous works. In all three novels, place is paramount. The Dry and The Lost Man are both set in the hot, arid, dusty outback of Australia. While The Dry was set in a small town with all the closeness that entails, in The Lost Man people live isolated lives hours from their nearest neighbours and have to be very self-sufficient as a consequence. Her second book, Force of Nature, was set in the bushland of the Giralong Ranges – a different kind of bush, although still harsh and unrelenting. But in all her books, the environment – the unique Australian environment – is depicted almost as a character, as a living, breathing entity that is by turn feared, loved, hated, always to be endured and survived, and never to be ignored. As readers of The Lost Man, we taste the grit on our tongues; we feel the inescapable press of burning heat on our skin. The dry wind brings the smell of animals, sweat, body odour and decay under the hot sun.
The Lost Man is set on two vast cattle properties in western Queensland, and every description – from the filthy utes to the wire fencing, from the empty landscape to the heat haze, from the absolute necessity of water and shelter to the rugged, harsh and solitary days of the farmers – everything is described in such detail that we feel we have spent a few days there ourselves.
Harper’s first two novels featured Federal Investigator Detective Aaron Falk, but The Lost Man diverges in that it is not a Falk novel, and in fact although police are involved, they are not at the centre of the story. While this is a crime novel, it also moves more closely to family drama, exploring the themes that Harper seems to gravitate towards, including betrayal, the power of forgiveness, the passage of time and the vagaries of memory. And like all her books, it explores the nuances of desperate people committing desperate acts in desperate times. But all of this is done with subtlety and care, with the characters’ secrets and lies revealed only very gradually as the story progresses.
The Lost Man opens in the middle of nowhere – the stockman’s grave, a simple marked resting place of a man buried a century ago, about whom ghost stories are told and rumours abound. The story begins with the death of Cameron Bright, who is found at the stockman’s grave all alone, without supplies and without sign of injury. His brothers, Nathan and Bub, stand together at the site of this grisly discovery, wondering how and why their brother was in this place, far from where he was supposed to be, far from his car and supplies, far from anyone or anything. It is a complete mystery, and a great way to begin a story.
Narrated by Nathan Bright, The Lost Man follows a more conventional and straightforward narrative than Harper’s previous two novels. She doesn’t play with structure as much – there are no flashbacks, or chapters anchored in the past, although there are plenty of memories that provide layer upon layer of backstory and chronology as the tale progresses. And as we only have one point of view – the perspective of Nathan – we are subject to misunderstandings and miscommunications along with him as the story develops. We discover information and clues as he discovers them, we begin to suspect the behaviour of others as he does, and we begin to form ideas about what might have happened in the same way that Nathan does as the days pass. (The added question of whether Nathan is a reliable narrator enhances the intrigue.)
As with all good crime novels, as well as the initial dead body, there are many possible potential victims and many plausible suspects. Characters’ motivations and behaviours are hinted at with enough detail that we begin to suspect everyone of something, and are not sure upon whom we should be focussing our attention. There are plenty of red herrings and, equally, plenty of important clues – but of course, we don’t know and can’t guess which are which. Even towards the end of the book, we are still being subtly guided in our attentions, first to this person, then to that one, never really knowing who is at the centre of the mystery.
The isolation of the properties where The Lost Man is set means that the significant characters are caught together in a bell jar of tension and suspicion. Along with the three Bright brothers, there is their mother Liz, Cameron’s widow Ilse and his two daughters, Nathan’s son Xander (one of my favourite characters), long-term employee Harry who is almost a member of the family, and a pair of backpackers living and working on the farm. The local police (and also the local medico, Steve) play important roles in the story, but are not front and centre as in most crime books.
The remoteness of the family means that they rely on each other and that outsiders are viewed with distrust. Locals have long memories, and bad blood casts a long shadow. Death is an accepted part of life in the outback, and survivors are pragmatic and resilient.
Harper’s dialogue is authentic and natural, and her flawed and sometimes dislikeable characters feel entirely genuine. She manages to traverse issues such as suicide, domestic violence and mental health almost stealthily, allowing them to gently bubble to the surface of the story and surprise us when they appear.
Cameron, the middle brother, and by all accounts the most successful sibling, was troubled by something or someone before his death. But what? Or who? And whatever it was, could it have driven him to despair enough to walk to his own death in such a lonely, pitiful and suffering way? As the story develops, and we begin to know and understand the characters, through Nathan’s eyes, we gradually uncover family secrets and private understandings, past deeds and wordless acquiescence, lies told and truths hidden.
Family is a complicated thing, and the Bright family is no exception. The grief over Cameron’s death is tainted by the unravelling of the mysterious circumstances of his death, and the climax is surprising and frightening. By the final pages, we come to a dawning comprehension of the calculated cruelty and callousness that by then seems entirely inevitable. The resolution is shocking and unpredictable, but also satisfying.