Jane Harper has made a success of delivering Australian crime novels with distinct sense of place. She explores both the beauty and dangers of that place and the community that adapts to it. In her multi award winning debut The Dry, that place was country Victoria and a landscape that was set to combust, in her 2019 award winner The Lost Man, the setting was outback Queensland and the threats were heat and distance. In The Survivors, Harper once again changes location. Her latest book is set in a small coastal community in Tasmania, still traumatised by the death and destruction of a massive storm many years before.
Kieran has returned to the small town of Evelyn Bay with his wife Mia and their new baby to help his ageing parents prepare to move to Hobart. Kieran’s mother is moving his father into care due to his advancing dementia and they are packing up the house. Kieran himself is a survivor of the massive storm of twelve years before that took the lives of his brother and his brother’s business partner, both of whom dies when coming to rescue him. Kieran still struggles with the grief and blames himself for their deaths. Kieran connects with his three old friends who still live in town but before long they are all caught up in the murder of Bronte, a traveller who has been working in town as a waitress. As the investigation of that murder goes on, connections back to the events of the great storm and its aftermath start to emerge.
Harper showed in The Lost Man that a crime novel does not need to be built around the main investigators of a crime. As in that book, Kieran is not a detective but he is interested in finding out what happened and does a little bit of his own digging. And this makes the murder mystery secondary to Harper’s exploration of the community of Evelyn Bay, how it ticks and how it responds to tragedy. Again, similar to The Lost Man, the unwritten rules around how people are supposed to treat each other and what happens when they are either adhered to or broken for personal reasons underpin all of this action.
All of that said, however, The Survivors is still a great mystery story, with plenty of suspects and red herrings. Using Kieran’s lay-investigator point of view allows readers to put themselves in the position of trying to solve the murder before the police can, using the clues that Kieran gathers. And while there are obviously secrets to be uncovered, this does not feel like a clichéd town full of wrongdoers. And once again, Harper manages to deliver this with a really organic sense of place – the town, the beach, the caves, the famous shipwreck marked out by an eerie partly submerged monument and the ocean around – not only its beauty but the way in which it shapes the people who live there.
In The Survivors Jane Harper shows how to get Australian rural crime fiction (or any crime fiction) right. Once again she immerses readers in the middle of a regional community and uses the crime genre tropes to explore what makes that community function. In particular how the members of the community interacts and responds to the landscape in which it sits, how it shapes them and how the people respond to the types of tragedy that are always possible when living in that landscape. While the ending is a little abrupt, following as it does some explanatory exposition, the solution to all of the mysteries, tied as they are to trauma and guilt, is satisfying.