The Australian town of Kiewarra is suffering from the worst drought of a century, no rain has fallen for two years and the town is suffering under “day after day of burning blue sky”. Everyone, especially the farmers, tell themselves “it’ll break”, repeating the words “out loud to each other like a mantra, and under their breath like a prayer”.

And so, it is not a great surprise when it appears that one of their number has finally cracked and not only shot his wife and son but also turned the gun on himself.

Harper sets the scene with the opening lines of her prologue: a quintessentially Australian scene: blowflies swarming around wet wounds in a hot, rural, remote town. But these blowflies are circling the gaping gunshot wounds inflicted on Karen Hadler and her small son Billy.

Aaron Falk and his father, Erik, were forced to leave Kiewarra over 20 years before this drama unfolds.

Rumours were spread regarding Aaron’s supposed hand in the death by drowning of Ellie Deacon. It was ruled a suicide and Aaron had an alibi, his best friend Luke Hadler.

Aaron, who is now a federal police officer investigating financial crimes in Melbourne, returns to Kiewarra for the funeral of Luke, his wife, Karen and their son, Billy.

It would seem that Luke shot his family and then himself because they were battling financially as a result of the crippling drought. Luke’s parents, who were the closest thing to real family to the young Aaron, do not believe their son was responsible for such heinous acts.

They ask a reluctant Aaron to see what he can find out. He joins forces with the local police sergeant Raco, and they realise all is not what it seems and they start to ask questions.

Harper produces tantalising options in a very believable manner - it is difficult to believe this is her first novel. And even harder to believe she learned to write fiction through a literary agency’s 12-week online writing course although she had already been a print journalist for more than a decade.

One trick she learnt from the course - a basic of the crime-writers repertoire: ensure nothing is what it first appears to be.

Even the discerning reader will be tempted to jump to conclusions while trying to sort out the guilty in both the Hadler murder case and the death of Ellie Deacon. She deals with the many other troubles that erupt in Kiewarra during Falk’s stay with great aplomb, including what could have been a romantic attachment which she scotches.

The constant reference to the river which once ran strongly through the countryside and played a major role in the lives of Aaron, Luke, Ellie and Gretchen, but is now a dry gully, is skilfully employed.

The Dry has won many awards, including the UK Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger and Abia Australian Book of the Year. Film rights have been optioned to Reese Witherspoon and Bruna Papandrea.

The Dry

Jane Harper

Loot.co.za (R323)

Abacus