Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2017, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Jane Harper, Pan Macmillan Australia, Publisher, Setting

‘Force of Nature’ by Jane Harper

Fiction – paperback; Pan Macmillan Australia; 400 pages; 2017.

Many of you will be familiar with Jane Harper’s debut novel, The Dry, which I read in 2016, long before it started to win every literature prize going, including the 2017 CWA Gold Dagger, the 2017 Australian Book Industry Award for Fiction Book of the Year and The Sunday Times Crime Book of the Year 2017.

I loved The Dry so much — the claustrophobic portrait of small town Australia, the depiction of the landscape and the drought, the wonderful characterisation and the believability of the crime — that I couldn’t wait for the UK publication of her follow-up, Force of Nature, so I ordered it on import at exorbitant cost from Australia. The price, I think, was worth it.

A gripping page-turner

Force of Nature (to be published in the UK on 8 February 2018) is yet another page-turner set in the Australian bush starring Federal Police Agent Aaron Falk.

This time round it’s winter, the drought has broken and a group of people on a corporate team-building exercise in rugged terrain have got themselves into trouble: one of their party has gone missing.

Falk has a special interest in the search-and-rescue mission because the missing bushwalker, Alice Russell, is the whistleblower in a fraud case he is working on with his colleague, Carmen Cooper. Is her disappearance linked to their investigation? Has she met with foul play or done a runner? Or is it purely co-incidence?

Mounting sense of tension

The book is nicely structured, swinging between two main narrative threads: what happens between the corporate team members on the weekend-long hike in the (fictional) Giralang Ranges; and the ensuing investigation by Falk and Cooper.

From the outset we know things are not going to go well on the hike. There are two groups — one comprising solely men, one comprising solely women — who go off in different directions, but the women never make their rendezvous point on the second night. Instead, fraught, frazzled and beset by petty squabbles, they get lost and cannot agree on the best course of action to take: set up camp and wait for daylight, or keep moving.

Meanwhile, Falk’s narrative thread highlights the pressure he is under from on high to solve the fraud case and at the same time we get to see the more human side of him: we learn about his fraught relationship with his late father and come to understand the loneliness of his life and his (unrecognised) need for human companionship.

Brilliantly clever characterisation

What makes this book work is the characterisation. Harper provides intriguing back stories for each character, particularly the women in the corporate group, giving each of them a plausible motivating factor for wanting nasty, short-tempered Alice to “disappear”.

And she does a terrific job of creating not only mounting tension — showing slowly-but-surely  how and why Alice goes missing — but also a sense of foreboding through the clever use of a news story familiar to the women: that of a serial killer, who butchered and buried a number of victims in the Giralang Ranges (loosely based, I suspect, on the real-life backpacker murders of the 1990s).

Force of Nature is not so much a crime novel, but a suspense one — and it’s so vividly drawn and so brimming with atmosphere it will probably deter swathes of readers from ever setting foot on a muddy bush track. (Companies offering corporate team-building exercises might rightly sue for damage, too.)

If I was to have criticise any aspect of the book it would be that we never quite find out what happens to Falk’s fraud investigation. But in the grand scheme things it doesn’t really matter: Force of Nature is a satisfying read, one that will delight fans of The Dry and perhaps attract a new audience to Harper’s work. Call me greedy, but I honestly can’t help but be impatient for the next novel in this intriguing crime series.

This is my my 10th book for #AWW2017 which means I have now completed this challenge for the year. Expect a wrap-up post in a few days.

Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Malla Nunn, Pan Macmillan Australia, Publisher, Setting, South Africa

‘A Beautiful Place to Die’ by Malla Nunn


Fiction – paperback; Pan MacMillan Australia; 408 pages; 2010.

It’s hard to believe that A Beautiful Place to Die is Malla Nunn’s first novel because it’s such an accomplished piece of literature. Nunn, who was born in Swaziland but now resides in Sydney, Australia, is a filmmaker. She clearly brings her visual eye to her writing, because this is a truly evocative — and provocative — piece of work.

The story, which is set in South Africa in the spring of 1952, functions on one level as a straightforward murder mystery but at a deeper level it explores the immorality, prejudice, cruelty and violence of Apartheid rule.

It opens with the murder of a police captain in the rural town of Jacob’s Rest. Captain Willem Pretorius, an Afrikaner widely respected in the community, has been found floating face down in a river with a bullet in his head and another in his back.

Detective Sergeant Emmanuel Cooper, an “English” South African from Jo’berg, is called to investigate.

Cooper, still haunted by the battlefields of the Second World War, has no truck with the race laws. He sees his job in very simple terms: to find the perpetrator of the crime regardless of their skin colour.

But Cooper’s code of ethics makes his task more difficult, because as far as the captain’s wife and five adult sons are concerned, only a black man would kill a white. And when the police Security Branch step in to take over the investigation they’re already eyeing up potential suspects that suit the outcome they desire, regardless of the truth.

Cooper finds himself in a difficult position (his life is put at risk on more than one occasion), but continues his work undaunted. He is aided by two allies, Zulu policeman Constable Samuel Shabalala and Dr Zweigman, a Jewish German who owns the town’s general store.

The quick-paced narrative is filled with plenty of surprises, as Cooper sets out to unearth Pretorius’ secret life while trying to hide secrets of his own…

A Beautiful Place to Die, first published in 2008, is a highly intelligent literary crime novel, one that brims with a slow burning anger. Not only does it reveal the sheer injustice (and stupidity) of The Immorality Act — one of the first Apartheid laws — which bans all sexual relations between whites and non-whites, it highlights the subjugation of black women and the volatile tension of racial segregation.

In Cooper, Nunn has created a slightly damaged but wise man with a strong moral compass and plenty of courage. It will be interesting to follow his development in the second instalment, Let the Dead Lie, which was published last year to critical acclaim.

Australia, Author, Book review, Non-fiction, Pan Macmillan Australia, Publisher, Setting, true crime

‘Sins of the Brother: The definitive story of Ivan Milat and the backpacker murders’ by Mark Whittaker and Les Kennedy


Non-fiction – paperback; Pan Macmillan Australia; 535 pages; 2008.

I’m quite partial to true crime books, especially those that are well researched, put the crime into context and don’t sensationalise or dumb-down the story. These books get extra kudos if they are told in a novelistic style. Sins of the Brother, first published in 1998 and reprinted seven times since then, ticks all these boxes.

Anyone who lived in Australia in the early 1990s will be familiar with the backpacker murders, when the bodies of seven young tourists, five from overseas and two from Melbourne, were discovered partly buried in the Belanglo State Forest in NSW. It was a particularly callous and brutal series of crimes that had the nation gripped. Because the bodies were not found all at once, but on separate occasions between September 1992 and November 1993, there was a real fear that a serial killer was on the loose and anyone could be his next victim.

The media went into a bit of a frenzy about it at the time but it took three years before anyone was charged and convicted of the crimes. That person was Ivan Milat, who is now serving seven consecutive life sentences, plus 18 years, for seven murders and the attempted murder, false imprisonment and robbery of another backpacker.

This book, which took almost four years to produce, is divided into two parts. The first painstakingly explores the Milat family background from 1902 to 1989. From the outset it’s made clear that Ivan, the son of Croatian immigrants, had a rather poor upbringing, both physically and psychologically. He and his various brothers turned to criminality at a young age. Before long petty crime gave way to crimes of a more serious nature. In 1971, for instance, Milat was charged with the abduction of two women and the rape of one of them, although the charges were later dropped.

The second part of the book focuses on the police investigation and how Milat, after many investigative mistakes and false leads, became the chief suspect. It diligently tells the stories of the individual victims — Brits Caroline Clarke and Joanne Walters, German couple Gabor Neugebauer and Anja Habschied, fellow German Simone Schmidl, and Victorian couple Deborah Everist and James Gibson — each of whom met their brutal end by shooting or stabbing. And it follows the amazing testimony of Paul Onions, a British backpacker, who escaped Milat’s clutches in January 1990 and then realised, several years later, that the man who pulled a gun on him wasn’t simply after his wallet. It concludes with Milat’s arrest, high-profile court case and subsequent conviction.

At more than 500 pages, a book like this really has to hold the attention. Whittaker and Kennedy do this superbly by telling the story in a detailed, frank and gripping way. It’s not exactly pleasant reading (in some parts it’s literally stomach-churning) but it’s completely fascinating in the same way that passersby are unable to tear their eyes away from a car crash or a bad accident: you know that the events are horrific, that the victims met a unimaginably gruesome death, but you keep looking (or reading) regardless.

I think the most impressive thing about Sins of the Brother is just the sheer amount of detail in it. Given that most of it is based on exclusive interviews with members of the Milat family, key police investigators, witnesses and lawyers, I can only imagine how difficult it must have been to sort it into chronological order let alone turn it into something effortlessly readable.

While painting a rather disturbing portrait of Milat, a fastidious loner with a penchant for guns, the book also highlights the possibility that he may not have acted alone. There are serious hints that his younger, wilder brother played a part. “It is a story about murder, but there is no murder in it,” Whittaker and Kennedy write in their authors’ note at the beginning of my edition. “That can only be told when Milat confesses to what went on in the forest, and who, if anybody, was with him.”