FAR EAST, SOUTH ASIA AND AUSTRALASIA
Crime isn’t my natural preference when it comes to fiction. However, I came across a secondhand copy of Force of Nature in a charity sale, and decided to give it a go. I knew that Jane Harper’s first novel, The Dry, had attracted widespread praise and been a huge commercial success; a film adaptation is reportedly due to hit the big screen in 2020. And it soon became clear that Force of Nature gives The Dry‘s policeman-hero Aaron Falk a second outing.
Based on the accolades for The Dry, I was expecting genre fiction, but superior genre fiction. That is pretty much what I got. The novel is effectively a new take on the sort of Agatha Christie-style novel in which a mysterious happening takes place in a stately home, among a bunch of people in a confined space, and the detective’s role is to untangle it. But in this re-interpretation of the familiar formula, we have several people on a corporate bonding exercise in the Australian bush – and a missing colleague.
Characters are not developed deeply, and personalities are revealed through deeds, rather than inner thoughts. We get repeated reminders of the characters’ defining characteristics: the company Chief Executive’s self-consciously charming smile, Lauren’s blandness, Gill’s inscrutability, Alice’s meanness.
That omnipresent, everyday lifeline, the mobile phone, is not permitted on the trip, and even when someone has smuggled a phone along, it is unable to pick up a signal. In traditional, older-skool mystery stories you would often come across scenes in which the characters discover to their horror that the phone lines have been cut; this variation on the theme brings that convention firmly into the 21st century.
There are some unlikely coincidences in the relationships between characters. For example, upon their arrival in the bush, the colleagues are split into two groups, men and women.
The women’s group comprises CEO Jill; Lauren, who used to go to school with Alice (both of whom now have daughters of similar ages attending the same prestigious private school that the two women used to attend); and identical co-worker twin sisters with an unexplained difficult relationship. The men’s group is led by Jill’s brother Daniel, while (requiring a further suspension of disbelief) Alice’s daughter has been dating Daniel’s son Joel. Meanwhile, the company is already under investigation by financial branch police officers, whose contact inside the organisation has been Alice. It is Alice who unexpectedly disappears, and everyone has a motive.
Force of Nature is a undemanding and enjoyable page-turner, with a good sense of place, and the wild and inhospitable environment of the Australian bush is the perfect location for the action. However, at times the narrative lurches just that little bit too far into melodrama and, let’s face it, plain silliness:
“Whatever had happened to Alice, she was out in the open, exposed. Somewhere, beneath the howl of the wind and the groan of the trees, Falk thought he could almost hear a death knell toll.”