Force of Nature (Aaron Falk 2) by Jane Harper

Lost in the woods…

🙂 🙂 🙂

Two groups set off into the Australian outback on a team-building exercise. The men’s team returns on time, but the women’s team is late. The search for them finds nothing but, just as it’s about to be abandoned for the night, four women burst out of the woods – some hysterical, some injured. But the fifth team member, Alice, isn’t with them. Federal Agent Aaron Falk becomes involved when it turns out Alice made a phone call to him the night before, though all he can make out on the recorded message is a lot of static and two words… “hurt her”. Falk and his partner Carmen had been pressuring Alice to get information for them on her company, since they suspect her boss of money-laundering. What has happened to Alice? Did she just walk away from her team in the middle of the night and get lost or is there a more sinister reason for her disappearance? Just to add to the sense of unease the woods were where a serial killer once brought his victims – the killer is now dead, but his son is alive and no one knows where he is…

It’s not often I have to suspend my disbelief quite so early in a thriller, but I struggled with the whole concept that any company would send its inexperienced staff off into the outback with no professional support, no satellite phone, no flares – no way, in fact, of alerting anyone should things go wrong. Maybe they’re tougher in Aus, but here the company management would be liable to major damages not to mention jail-terms. I also felt the idea that the son of a serial killer would necessarily be a serial killer was… dubious. I didn’t feel Harper did enough to convince me of that likelihood by showing that the son had any kind of track record, nor did I feel that strand was really used effectively as the story developed. So I didn’t get off to the best start with this one.

Having set up Alice’s disappearance, the book then takes us back in time to follow the women on their hike, alternating this with Aaron and Carmen in the present assisting the search and slowly revealing the storyline about their investigation into the company. This works fairly well, and each trip into the woods focuses on a different one of the women so that we gradually get to know them all. It’s not long before they get lost and then we get a kind of accelerated Lord of the Flies syndrome, as the women’s veneer of camaraderie quickly gives way to greed, bullying and the dredging up of old scores. This is not a company I would choose to work for!

I don’t want to be too hard on the book, since I suspect some of my relative disappointment with it is caused by too high expectations following Harper’s excellent début in The Dry. But the technique of flicking back and forwards between two timelines is feeling increasingly tired and, a common complaint of mine these days, the first chapters telling us which women come out of the woods destroy any real suspense when we then go back in time. Every time one of the women other than Alice is in peril, we know she survives. I genuinely don’t get why writers think these prologue-type chapters are a good idea, especially in a thriller. The book is also too long for its content – another common feature of current crime/thriller fiction. It drags badly in the middle and somehow the plot gets too convoluted for a thriller and yet not complex enough for a crime mystery. While Harper does achieve a feeling of creepiness at several points in the woods, the major storyline doesn’t live up to its promise.

Jane Harper

On the upside, Aaron and Carmen mesh together well and are a team I’ll be happy to see work together again. Harper’s writing, characterisation and powers of description are just as good as in her début – the book just needs a sharper plot and tighter structure to create a real feeling of suspense. All the elements are there and, while I think authors always have the primary responsibility, as a newish author I feel Harper deserved a stricter editor who would have made the criticisms several reviewers are now making. I always suspect publishers want to rush second books to market after a successful début, but sometimes it would be better to take a little longer – readers will wait. In the end, this is an averagely good thriller with the potential to have been an excellent one. Now that the always tricky second novel is over I look forward to seeing how Harper develops as the series progresses.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Little, Brown Book Group UK.

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55 thoughts on “Force of Nature (Aaron Falk 2) by Jane Harper

  1. Thanks, as ever, for your candor, FictionFan. In thrillers, you do often have to suspend some disbelief. That said, though, I wonder about that company, too. And I have to admit the whole serial-killer thing is …well…it takes an awful lot to draw me into a novel with a serial killer as a main character. Still, the setting is interesting, and I’m glad you found the writing style and characters strong.

    • It’s kinda hard to avoid spoilers here, but I’ll just say I wouldn’t let the serial killer angle put you off this one – it’s not the major thread. She has loads of potential and is of course suffering from everyone having ridiculous expectations after her first great book. I’m never sure a hugely successful debut is a blessing in the long term…

  2. My two colleagues who’ve read both books, said very similar things. It’s a shame that it has that rushed to publication feel – no doubt trying to catch the Australian summer holiday market 😦

    • I was worried it was just me since I’ve been in a bit of a slump for a while, but when I looked at Goodreads I saw quite a lot of people are making similar criticisms. Yes, I do think publishers maybe press new authors to go too quickly – not sure it’s a good policy in the long term. However, this was good… just not great, you know?

    • I loved the first one and that may have been part of why I was slightly disappointed with this one – too high expectations. But this one is still well worth reading despite my criticisms… 🙂

  3. The company not providing more for the hikers is definitely a plot hole that would bug me too. The book does have an interesting premise but I am sorry to hear that it didn’t quite deliver. I hope to read Dry sometime soon though.

    • Yes, I don’t mind when I have to cross the credibility line a bit at the end, but this was too much of a leap right at the beginning. I loved The Dry, though – one of my favourite books of last year, so I hope you enjoy that one. And if you do, this one is still well worth reading even if it’s not as good… 🙂

  4. The issues you mentioned in your review would be enough for me to stop reading. I’m glad I read this review. Too many books, too little time to waste time on those that will only cause frustration.

    • It is a pity, though, because she’s an excellent writer. Hopefully as the series goes on she’ll find ways to keep it tighter and only take us over the credibility line when it’s absolutely necessary…

  5. As soon as I saw your star rating I thought ugh oh! I’m disappointed to hear there’s the flipping back and forth of timelines…I completely agree that it seems to be an overused “go to” narrative structure, especially for newer authors and I just wish we could read more mysteries in a linear timeline! I think I may have the same issues as you which is disappointing for this much anticipated read

    • Yes, the more I read of the classic crime novels, the more I realise how much I prefer a linear timeline, past tense, third person,… in fact, just about everything crime fiction doesn’t do these days! This one is well worth reading but I suspect it will disappoint a lot of people like me who had too high expectations after The Dry. But if you do read it, I hope you enjoy it! 😀

  6. I haven’t read either of her books. I so agree about editing – maybe it’s old age, but I really can’t be bothered to invest time in a new author if I already know I’ll have to do some of the work! Could be why I reread so much, editors knew their job and did it, and writers were all the better for it.

    • The problem is I think publishers must think we all love these books that ramble on for 400 pages when 200 would work better. I do wonder what editors do, though – they certainly don’t seem to point out some of the obvious weaknesses. And I think the authors suffer long term – there are so many books out there that they’re very much judged on their last one these days, and readers might not give them another chance…

    • So did I! But don’t let me put you off this one completely – loads of people are liking it more than me, and even I think it’s well worth reading despite my criticisms… 😀

  7. I would have been lost at the point where the agents had been pressuring Alice. What sort of behaviour is that? And I am so with you about prologues. Nine times out of ten they reveal the climax of a story. There is a reason why in the archetypal story structure the climax comes after the developing conflict. If a writer has to shift it to the beginning I always wonder if it’s because they are worried they won’t be able to hold the reader’s attention without a splash to start out with.

    • Yes, the whole money-laundering side of the story was very underplayed too. I think the real problem is that the book couldn’t decide whether it was a thriller or a police procedural and as a result it didn’t fully succeed as either. The prologue thing drives me mad – I’ve never understood people who read the last few pages before they read a book, and that’s what these prologues always feel like to me. I have wondered if it’s to do with the “look inside” feature on Amazon meaning the first few pages have to contain a hook…

  8. Bless your heart, FF, for saying so well what I’ve long thought — second books are tricky for writer, publisher, and reader. Let’s just dispense with them outright!! I haven’t read this one, but I feel the areas you had problems with would be just the ones I wouldn’t enjoy. We have to suspend disbelief a bit when reading, but this sounds like a miserable company to work for, ha!

    • I’m genuinely never sure that a huge success in a debut is a good thing for an author in the long run, though obviously it must feel great at the time. Sometimes I think a slow build over the first two or three books achieves more reader loyalty in the end…

  9. A brilliant review (as always) and I still have to read The Dry which needless to say I have read many great reviews of – I think the second book is tricky and even more so when it follows so closely on the heels of a successful debut. I’ve discovered I’m better at suspending belief if it comes later in a book but I think I’d have similar qualms to you with that set-up so early on. I’d rather leave the company than endure team building in the outback even without any potential murderers lurking…

    • Thank you! 😀 Yes, I think a hugely successful debut can be a double-edged sword – sometimes I think a slow build over the first two or three books can be better in the long run. Having said that this ine is still worth reading and The Dry is a must-read! Haha – that was how I felt! I’d definitely have resigned… 😉

  10. Yah I find team building in the outback like that extremely hard to believe, although I do also believe aussies are tougher than us. I lived there for a short period of time, and my god the bugs alone are enough to scare the wits out of you!

  11. Being the lone wolf that I am, any exercise in team-building can never end well, LOL. Yes, I, too, find it difficult to suspend my overly critical self. But I did spend a couple of months in OZ back in 1988. They are definitely a tough, but friendly, crowd. That said, they’d most likely head into the outback with knives, a case of 4X beer, and a jar of vegemite, for sure.

    • I hated these team-building things – I’m a loner too in terms of work, or worse – a manager… not always what other team members really want! 😉 Hahaha – I think I’d actually rather face the son of a serial killer than a jar of vegemite… but that may be from the emotional scars left over from house-sharing with a New Zealander for a while…

    • Thank you! 😀 I loved The Dry so I’m sure my expectations were too high. If you didn’t love it quite so much, you might actually enjoy this one more, if you see what I mean…

  12. Imagine being abandoned in the woods as a ‘team building’ exercise! I agree that the idea of the son also being a serial killer is a bit of a stretch, unless there was a fairly solid explanation as to why that might be. It reminds me of the plot of an 80s horror franchise, about 6 films in when they start to run out of ideas. As you say, it sounds like this book could do with a firmer editor – perhaps Harper got over-excited after her last one, which resulted in a bit of giddy plotting. Let’s hope she pulls her socks up for the next one 🙂

    • I know!! I’d have resigned before it started and sued for mental trauma. I think the real problem might have been that she was trying to do both a thriller and a police procedural, but the two genres don’t always work well together. I’m not sure a hugely successful debut is always a good thing, even though it must feel great at the time – but it does set up very high expectations… oh well, hopefully book 3 will be great!

  13. I’ll wait a while before reading this, as don’t want to compare this to The Dry.
    I’m Australian, and the most exciting team-building exercise I’ve ever done is bare-foot bowling (lawn bowling). The combination of alcohol and heavy bowling balls seems to me to be dangerous!

    • Hahaha – I hate these team-building things! I’m surprised they don’t lead to murder more often… usually of the person who decided to hold one in the first place. No jury would convict…

      Yes, I’d leave a bit of time before reading this – it’s well worth reading but just doesn’t have the same magic as The Dry. I’ll still be anticipating book 3 though… 😀

  14. I don’t know if we’re tougher but I can attest that those kinds of team building things are a lot more “loosey goosey” here than in the UK. About 6 years ago my then employer sent a group of us off to the Flinders Ranges – less trees but more remote than the place Harper describes – it was a long weekend so Saturday morning to Monday night and we had no communications with us and no guides (just a map & a compass) – there were satellite phones at “designated points” on the trail but we only found 1 the during our whole hike. We did have GPS trackers with us so theoretically we could have been found if necessary but I have to say the technology was not that accurate – another group there the same weekend tried to use it to locate a lost item of gear and never did find their item. One of the colleagues in my group was English and he was gobsmacked at how we all took it for granted that we would be on our own.

    As for the son of a serial killer that did work for me but maybe that’s a local thing too. I think Harper was referencing a real case. There is a hideous serial killer who worked in a real bushland area in a different state – he was eventually caught but for many years the rumours were that at least one of his family (most likely a brother or possibly cousin) might have been assisting him. That and the fact everyone here who lives in the city (which is the vast majority of us) is able to believe that the bush is full of roving serial killers…if you’ve ever seen the movie Wolf Creek…some of us think that’s a doco 🙂

  15. Haha – I knew Aussies were a tough breed, but you’ve just all moved up in my estimation – I’m in awe! Over here, it would take about three years to write risk assessments and everyone would have to go through in-depth survival training and medical tests, and probably even then they’d want everyone to wear safety harnesses! Now I feel like we’re all softies… 😉

    Intirguing – it just goes to show how opinions of books can be affected by knowledge, or lack of knowledge, of the context. I know I regularly rave about Scottish books and then see them getting fairly lukewarn reviews from people from elsewhere who don’t ‘get’ them in quite the same way. Or the reverse – I get totally annoyed with all the Glasgow gangster stuff in contemporary crime because they almost never reflect the actual Glasgow I live in. But I see reviews from non-Scots who feel they paint an entirely authentic picture. Authors can never win, really…

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