Jane Harper writes brilliant crime fiction that brings the reader face to face with the extremes of the Australian landscape. In The Lost Man, we’re in the dry, scorching outback of Queensland, an atmospheric setting that cranks up the tension. You can’t just go for a lengthy walk – within hours you become dehydrated and ill. People who get lost don’t survive.
The story begins with the arrival of Nathan, loner of the Bright family, at the site of his brother’s dead body. His farm borders that of his family, run by his brothers, Bub and the now deceased Cameron. What was Cam doing here at the old stockman’s grave, miles from anywhere and his car nowhere in sight? They all know it’s madness to go any distance without your vehicle and its stock of water, food and petrol reserves, enough to sustain you until rescue. The family log book where everyone notes their whereabouts for the day says he would be elsewhere on the property, meeting Bub to fix a repeater mast, an appointment he never kept.
Nathan slowly pieces together what was going on in Cam’s life, moving back to the family farm with his sixteen-year-old son, Xander recently home for Christmas, and now it seems for a family funeral. We meet the characters who could reveal more: his still spritely mother, Liz, and Uncle Harry, the longtime farm help and family retainer. There’s also Cam’s wife Ilse, a former barmaid and onetime squeeze of Nathan’s with whom he finds hard to be alone. There are Cam and Ilse’s young daughters and the English backpacking couple who help out where needed.
We get Nathan’s back-story, his difficult relationship with his father-in-law, his acrimonious divorce, the reason why he keeps to himself on his farm and never comes to town. In a way, he is just as much a lost man as his brother Cam, but the death brings him back to his family and leads him to re-evaluate his life and facts he’d taken for granted. There are a raft of family secrets, including stories about Cam – was he such a great guy as everyone seems to suggest? But how does Nathan ask the difficult questions without causing more upset?
The Lost Man is a character-driven mystery that keeps you turning the pages even though there isn’t an obvious threat of a killer on the loose and the piling up of bodies you often find in this genre. The threats that add the requisite tension lie in the harsh environment and its effects on the characters, plus the slow revelation of past wrongs. Everyone seems to have something to hide but can Nathan, with all his baggage, his his taciturn manner, get to the bottom of it all?
The story is entertaining enough, but also reminds you that in a harsh environment, where old traditions die hard and men are men, women can be vulnerable and have limited choices. At the same time, the landscape has a magic of its own – the stunning ochre colours, the big open skies, full of ghosts and stories. It seems more than just a setting; almost a character in its own right. It isn’t surprising that Jane Harper’s books are so popular and win awards – she is fast becoming a master at this genre. A four out of five read from me.