Book review: ‘Exiles,’ by Jane Harper


A murky, unsolved crime in the past; an Australian setting so dramatic it’s almost a character in itself; a tall, thin Melbourne police officer with close-cropped, white-blond hair and invisible eyelashes: These are the hallmarks of Jane Harper’s Aaron Falk mysteries.

With the publication of “Exiles,” Harper has completed the Falk trilogy, which began in 2017 with “The Dry.” In that novel we met Falk, then 36, working in the financial division of the Australian Federal Police — which made sense, since Harper was coming to thriller-writing from a business reporting beat at the Herald Sun in Melbourne. Falk was back in “Force of Nature,” published in 2018. Harper then wrote a couple of books off-series — “The Lost Man” in particular built her audience in the United States.

While it’s not critical to read the three Falk books in order, it greatly enhances the experience. “Exiles” is set six years after the events of “The Dry,” for instance, and revolves around a friendship established in the earlier book. “The Dry” was set in Kiewarra, a fictional farming community in regional Victoria, five hours from Melbourne. The title refers to the drought raging in the area, sucking the life out of the local economy, creating the imminent threat of wildfire and driving everyone a bit mad. The scorching heat and its effects are never off the page for very long; environment and weather are always key players in Harper’s work.

This area is where Falk grew up and where he returns in “The Dry” under grisly circumstances: His childhood best friend, Luke, has shot his wife and child and then himself, leaving their younger baby wailing in her crib. Or perhaps there’s some other explanation for the deaths. Falk’s homecoming is hardly a happy one, as he and his father were railroaded out of town when he was a teenager after the death of Falk’s girlfriend under mysterious circumstances.

Harper established right away that Falk was no handsome James Bond type, but he is a thoughtful, compassionate man. (With the handsome, dark-eyed Australian actor Eric Bana playing Falk in the film version of “The Dry” and the forthcoming “Force of Nature,” the unprepossessing element of Falk’s persona doesn’t seem to have survived the transition to the screen.) He’s unmarried and a bit of a loner, though quite happy to fall into a friendship with Greg Raco, the personable local policeman on the case, and his pregnant wife, Rita. Raco is relatively new to the town, so he relies on Falk to clarify the knotted, nasty backstories and attitudes of the locals. Drought-related despair is running so high that many people seem to view Luke’s act with as much pity as blame.

In “Force of Nature,” Harper sends Falk to the wild Giralang Mountains, another fictionalized but quintessentially Australian location. The crime in the past this time is a notorious set of serial killings in the mountains 20 years earlier. Though the killer died in jail, one victim’s body was never found, and his son may still be on the loose. Nonetheless, a Melbourne boutique accountancy firm has chosen the area for a team-building retreat. Falk and his new partner, Carmen, are already in touch with one of the women in the group, a whistleblower named Alice Russell who has documents that prove her bosses have been involved in money laundering for generations. The five women sent into the woods for the retreat come back late, drenched, bloody, snakebit and down one member — Alice has disappeared.

“Force of Nature” ends with Falk phoning up Greg Raco to make a plan for a hike in the Giralang, and the friendship with Raco sets up the situation in “Exiles,” the new book, billed as the last of the series. In a prologue, Falk is on the way with Raco to a fictional part of South Australian wine country, the Marralee Valley, to stand as godfather at the christening of Raco and Rita’s third child, Zoe. The baby Rita was pregnant with in “The Dry” is now 5, and though the family still lives in Kiewarra, Marralee is where Raco grew up and where his brother Charlie runs the family winery. The christening was to be held over the same weekend as the local wine and produce festival, a state-fair-type event that makes it a perfect time to visit the area.

But the first night of the fair, Charlie Raco’s ex-wife Kim, now remarried, parked her new baby’s pram under the Ferris wheel, then disappeared. The search consumed the next few days, and the christening was postponed.

Chapter 1 opens one year later. Kim was never found, though one of her white sneakers turned up stuck in the dam by the reservoir. Some people believe she may have taken her own life. One person who definitely doesn’t go for that theory is Zara, the 17-year-old daughter Kim had with Charlie. Zara’s made up a “Have you seen me?” flier to distribute at the fair. (Connoisseurs will note that there’s always a missing-person flier in an Aaron Falk mystery.) Others believe there may be some connection between a hit-and-run five years earlier, and though the local cop thinks they’re dreaming, Falk doesn’t rule it out.

For the first time, Harper gives Falk a love interest: Gemma, who’s been selected by the Racos as Zoe’s godmother. She and Falk already know there’s a spark between them — they met in Melbourne a while back when both were supposed to see Raco for a drink and he never showed. Well, that was then, this is now. By the time of the christening, Falk has a brief fantasy that he and Gemma are in that church for another reason.

But what happened to Kim Gillespie? In such a tightknit community, how does a person just disappear? Though she makes a point of careful plotting and neatly tied-up threads, Harper’s books are as much about Australian society and the pressures and dangers of the country’s landscape as they are about finding missing people and solving murders. Social issues like domestic abuse, addiction and bullying play a significant role in her plots, and “Exiles” is no exception. The ability to spot subtle warning signs of a troubled soul is probably Falk’s greatest gift as an investigator, leading him to look for Kim very close to home.

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