The Lost Man by Jane Harper

Reviewed by Annabel

I’ll say it up front, Jane Harper’s third novel, The Lost Man, was totally unputdownable! Not having read her first two, The Dry and Force of Nature (which Gill reviewed for Shiny here), I will have to return to them and catch up. They featured a Melbourne detective, Aaron Falk, but The Lost Man is a standalone.

The Australian outback 1500km west of Brisbane, where your nearest neighbours are a three-hour drive away in the unforgiving 45 degree heat, provides the setting for what is essentially a locked room mystery.

When Cameron Bright, the eldest of three brothers, is found dead at the Stockman’s Grave – a ‘local’ site of historic interest – it first appears he had planned to die there. His body was spotted by a helicopter pilot who called it in.

The headstone threw a small shadow. It was the only shade in sight and its blackness was slippery, swelling and shrinking as it ticked around like a sundial. The man had brawled, then dragged himself around as it moved. He had squeezed into that shade, contorting his body into desperate shapes, kicking and scuffing the ground as fear and thirst took hold.

Cam’s two brothers, Bub who lives on the family homestead, and Nathan who has a neighbouring property (three hours’ drive away naturally), have arranged to meet the police and ambulance there. Bub doesn’t know why Cam should have been at the Stockman’s Grave; he was meant to meet Bub at Lehmann’s Hill in the other direction, so they could repair the radio repeater mast, but Cam never turned up.

The next question is how did Cam get to this isolated spot?  They eventually find his 4WD nine km away where the track went through a rocky outcrop. The vehicle is fully stocked with survival supplies, food, water, fuel, everything is in place. No note either, there is no hint that he was planning to walk into the desert to die.

The novel is essentially told from the middle brother’s perspective. Nathan lives alone, after his wife Jacqui abandoned him and took their son Xander back to Brisbane. Being effectively the outsider and a bit of a black sheep of the family for reasons we’ll find out later, in this small but close family group, it’s Nathan who will gradually work out all the complex family dynamics and painstakingly inch towards the truth of what happened. It doesn’t take long for Cam’s death to expose all the skeletons in the Bright’s extended family closet and it soon becomes obvious that it was neither suicide nor an accident.

Nathan, with his son in tow, for Xander is staying with Nathan this Christmas (yes, there is the added stress of the festive season built in), must try and fit back in with what’s left of his family. His widowed mother Liz, Cam’s wife Ilse and their two daughters, much younger brother Bub, plus Uncle Harry and two backpackers working at the homestead comprise the household. All are strongly drawn, including the deceased patriarch of the family, Carl – who had terrorised his family when alive. Even the more peripheral characters are given depth, justifying their essential parts in the ensuing drama, which never descends into melodrama. Especially touching was the rebuilding of the relationship between Nathan and Xander, who haven’t seen each other enough the past few years.

Despite the hugeness of the sun-baked outback, this is a very claustrophobic family drama. Day to day, they live in isolation, but Harper makes it clear how vital it is to maintain contact with the outside world. It’s a strange world, where everyone knows each other, or at least of each other – there are only 65 people living around the one-street town at the centre of their community. Yet, beyond the rumours, it’s still possible to keep secrets as Nathan will discover.

The pace of The Lost Man is pitched perfectly, and the suspense is palpable from the outset. Will this mystery be resolved by Christmas?  Absolutely superb!

Annabel is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

Jane Harper, The Lost Man (Little, Brown, 2019). 978-1408708217, 384pp., hardback.

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