Mini-Reviews | Murder Mysteries: The Dry & After I’m Gone

The Dry
THE DRY by Jane Harper (Published by MacMillan Australia in 2016)

My Rating: ★★★★☆

In The Dry, Aaron Falk, a Melbourne-based police officer who works with the financial intelligence unit, returns to his hometown for the funeral of his childhood friend, Luke Hadler, and his wife and six-year-old son. The story goes that Luke shot his wife and son first before committing suicide himself. Falk was initially content to take the story at face value, but he was persuaded by Luke’s parents to extend his stay in order to take another look at the crime. As it happens, things don’t quite add up, and we follow Falk as he investigates the possible murder of the Hadlers and confronts his own painful past in his hometown.

I’m writing this review about a month after I read the book, and the one thing that I can still remember vividly is the setting. Harper is a master at creating a sense of place. The Dry is set in the small farming community of Kiewarra, which has been experiencing a dry season so severe that it hasn’t rained for two years. There are constant small references to this—like the “blinding sunlight”, the “ferocious heat”, and the sweat marks always visible on people’s clothes—that really make the heat feel pervasive and even sinister. It also further enhances the suffocating feeling of investigating a murder in a small town with largely unfriendly inhabitants, made even more inhospitable by the heat.

Harper also raises the stakes by making the investigation thrice more difficult than usual: First and foremost because of Falk’s past, second because of his being a cop, and third because of his poking around a case that people were content to let lie. It was interesting to watch Falk and the newbie local officer, Raco, navigate these obstacles with varying degrees of success. As the story progressed, though, I was put off by how much Falk’s past was getting in the way. The narrative moves between the past and the present, with the past depicted as a series of flashbacks, and aside from me not being a fan of this kind of storytelling (in general I find that flashbacks are jarring breaks in narrative), there were too many details from the past that bogged down the present mystery. It didn’t help that Falk seemed far more invested in brooding about his tragic past than solving the murder.

Still, I found this to be a fairly competent mystery. Halfway through I had a hunch about who the murderer was likely to be by virtue of that person being the least obvious choice (as is typical of most whodunnits), but how it was done eluded me, so when Falk figured it out I felt satisfied that all the clues lined up well. Overall I found this to be a highly atmospheric read with an intriguing premise and a twist at the end that was genuinely surprising. I’d definitely read more of this author in the future.

Read from February 16-20, 2020

After I'm Gone
AFTER I’M GONE by Laura Lippman (Published by William Morrow in 2014)

My Rating: ★★★★☆

Like The Dry, After I’m Gone is essentially two mysteries in one, with one taking place in the past and the second taking place in the present. It opens with the disappearance of Felix Brewer, a highly successful owner of a gambling club and a wanted criminal, and the aftermath of his disappearance on his wife and three daughters. Years later, Felix’s mistress, Julie Saxony, is found dead near the house of Felix’s family. Because of insufficient evidence however, no one could be convicted, so the case was closed. This brings us to the ‘present day’ in the novel, when police consultant Detective Sanchez picks up this cold case for another look.

Mercifully, unlike The DryAfter I’m Gone doesn’t employ flashback snippets to portray past events but rather devotes entire chapters from the perspective of each Brewer family member to vividly illustrate the financial, emotional, and social repercussions of Felix’s disappearance. Lippman accomplishes this by presenting the past in chronological order, and then alternating these with chapters of the present cold case investigation from Detective Sanchez’s point of view. This format took some time to get used to, but once I did, I became fully invested in Felix’s family and their struggles to make ends meet after he’d disappeared. Halfway through the novel I realized I was actually looking forward to the chapters on Felix’s family rather than the murder investigation itself.

I would say though that this has more to do with the characters’ struggles than the characters themselves. This sounds nitpicky, but the difference is real. Many times, the characters’ personalities revolved around stereotypical descriptions—Felix’s daughters are described as “the organized one”, “the smart one”, and “the beautiful one”, from eldest to youngest, respectively—and they hardly deviate from these as they grow older. There are also some highly problematic ideas about women. These are probably more reflective of the character and the historical milieu (we’re talking about the ’60s and ’70s here) than the author’s views, but it still angered me to read them. Here’s a snippet from Felix’s point of view:

He loved Bambi [his wife], [but] he needed other women. . . . Being with Julie [his mistress] wasn’t an expression of dissatisfaction with Bambi. It’s just that life was better when you ordered à la carte. There had been girls other than Julie, too, a one-nighter here or there. Because he could. Because he needed to. If only Bambi would let go of that piece of her she kept locked away, if only she weren’t so goddamn self-sufficient.

There are also two other characters in the story who use their looks to get men to marry them, and while it can be argued that it’s a form of agency, I still didn’t appreciate the excessive focus on women’s looks.

However, like I said, what made these characters truly compelling is how they all dealt with Felix’s disappearance, and how they helped each other make ends meet. The  family’s dire financial situation is a cause for both tensions and alliances to form, and produced both bitter fights and touching moments. I also liked how profoundly these financial concerns shaped each character—constantly worrying about money made two of the daughters more thrifty, but the youngest took the opposite route and instead did everything in her power to find men who could finance her lifestyle. I thought it was a good depiction of a “riches-to-rags” story—of how a rich family suddenly finds their fortunes reversed, and how they coped with the sudden loss of material wealth and security.

In the end, the fate of the Brewer women and the murder investigation intertwine, and the story really picks up over the last few chapters. Lippman wraps everything up quite seamlessly. Overall, I was pleasantly surprised to find that this book was not only a mystery but also a character study and a family saga. That said, though, this might not be for those who prefer more fast-paced and plot-driven murder mysteries. As for me, I thoroughly enjoyed this and I’ll definitely be reading this author again.

Read on March 19, 2020

Have you read any gripping murder mysteries recently? Let me know in the comments!

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8 thoughts on “Mini-Reviews | Murder Mysteries: The Dry & After I’m Gone

  1. Last summer I would not shut up about how much I loved the nonfiction book No Visible Bruises. It looks at domestic violence and how it affects everything in the United States, from the way police operate to the economy. One thing the author, Rachel Louise Snyder, learns is that it’s incredibly common for a man to kill his family and then himself and for HIS family to then deny anything like that could ever happen. So, I was interested to read in your first review that the murder-suicide seems suspicious and that was what launches the story.

    1. Oooh, I’ve heard about that book on a podcast but wasn’t able to note it down! I just added it to my TBR. Sadly that does sound like a typical story… when the story opened with it, it was plausible enough that if it hadn’t been a murder mystery I wouldn’t have guessed otherwise.

      1. There were so many things in No Visible Bruises that I expected, but I actually learned a ton, too. It really changed my perspective of society in the United States. It’s not that domestic violence doesn’t occur in other countries, but the author looks at all the other factors using examples from the U.S., such as how police get involved, how battered women shelters are often worse than staying in the home once the perpetrator is removed, etc. The most hopeful part was about how all these groups can come together and make a massive difference in the murder rate.

      2. “How battered women shelters are often worse than staying in the home once the perpetrator is removed” – this is very interesting. We also have shelters here, but I’ve always thought that it’s the best place to keep them for some time – that or a relative’s house. Now I have to read this book and see how it compares with our own system.

      3. The author discusses how a shelter is often far from the woman’s support system (family, friends) and her job, and her children’s school. Instead of basically moving to a new home, she’s uprooting her entire life in a way that makes her more vulnerable. I was surprised, too.

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