The Lost Man by Jane Harper

Fighting the flab…

😀 😀 😀

In the scorching heat of the Australian Outback, two brothers meet at the site of an old grave, where a man lies dead – their brother, Cameron. He is far from his vehicle and without water or anything to shade him from the broiling sun. But how did he get there? Is this some dreadful form of suicide or is there some more sinister reason for his death? Nathan, the brother closest to him in age but who has been rather detached from the family for some years, starts asking questions and soon begins to uncover tensions and secrets that make him reassess those closest to him…

This starts off with a brilliant first chapter that is creepy and horrific, though not in a gruesome way, and immediately places the reader in this vast isolated cattle-ranching country on the edge of the desert, where one mistake can mean death to the unwary, from heatstroke, dehydration or snakes. Then Harper gradually introduces us to the various family members and slowly fills in each person’s past so that we begin to understand the undercurrents that run underneath the outwardly united front the family presents to the world.

Nathan’s son Xander is visiting for Christmas. His home is with his mother in the city, so he provides another outsider view of the family, and an interesting perspective on the differences in lifestyle between these isolated ranchers and the urbanites. Bub, the youngest of the three brothers, has a chip on his shoulder about his brothers always seeming to be the ones in charge. The sons’ mother, Liz, has had a hard struggle to hold her family together despite her (long-dead) husband’s brutality and cruelty. Harry has worked on the property for so long he’s viewed as part of the family. And although he has fought against it, Nathan has always been strongly attracted to Cameron’s wife, Ilse. Throw in a couple of backpackers doing temporary jobs on the property, Cameron’s two daughters, and the folk from the tiny little local town, and there’s plenty of room for resentments and rumours, lies and secrets, to have built up in the claustrophobia of this small community.

Harper is great at creating settings, using some of the extreme conditions and environments to be found in the vastness of Australia as her backdrop, and showing how the fight to survive in harsh inhospitable conditions takes a toll on her characters, physically and mentally. Here she sets the book at the hottest time of the year, when the danger is at its greatest for anyone who doesn’t obey the rules of survival that all inhabitants are taught from childhood. If accurate, and I assume it is, it sounds quite literally like hell on earth (to my cold-seeking Northern soul, at least) and I couldn’t help wondering why on earth anyone would choose to live there. It’s not just the heat, though – Harper shows the isolation and loneliness that comes with living on huge ranches, some as large as small European nations, and suggests, again I assume with good reason, that suicide is another of the hazards of life there.

The plot is interesting, but the story comes to light only gradually, so I won’t risk spoilers by saying more about it. The weakness of the book is that it’s too gradual – it comes in at just under 400 pages and could easily have lost 100 pages or more and been a better, tighter book. After a great start, there are large parts where nothing seems to happen for ridiculously long periods of time – pages filled with mundane and repetitive dialogue and descriptions of the effects of heat that didn’t move things along at all. I considered abandoning it more than once, and skimmed many pages in the mid-section. However, it picks up again in the last quarter so in the end I was glad I stuck with it. I do wish authors (and editors) would work harder to tighten up their middles – there’s a bookish obesity epidemic out there! Especially in crime fiction.

Jane Harper

In summary, then, there’s an excellent book in here struggling to get out from under the flab. The interesting plot, good characterisation and great sense of place make it worth reading but it’s badly let down by being far too long for the story it contains. I think Harper is a talented writer (which is why I’m so grouchy!), so will be looking forward to her next novel, with my fingers crossed that she can learn when she’s done enough to set the atmosphere and get on with telling the story.

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

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39 thoughts on “The Lost Man by Jane Harper

  1. I have only read Jane Harper’s first novel, which was a good debut. I had heard the quality dipped with the second but came back up with this third. And yes, suicide is still far too prevalent in regional and rural Australia, particularly with young men.

    • I loved The Dry and wasn’t impressed at all by Force of Nature. This one fell between for me – it has some great elements but floundered in the middle. I must say with the extreme heat and isolation I’m not surprised about the high rates of suicide. What I am surprised about is that people are willing to live and work in those conditions. But then heat is my personal idea of hell…

    • Hahaha! I’m a big fan of the idea of winter flab – it’s what makes winter worthwhile! Since it’s freezing up here today, I shall have a large dollop of cake and avoid manholes…

    • I think you’re in the majority with this one, Margaret – I seem to be finding so many books flabby in the middle at the moment that I suspect it must be me! I think reading all these lean vintage crime books might be making me extra aware of flab…

  2. It does sound as though this one’s got some excellent aspects to it, FictionFan. And it just goes to show how important economy of words can be. I agree with you, too: Harper is great at evoking place and local culture, and draws her characters well.

    • She really is an excellent writer and I’m sure will gradually develop the art of knowing when she’s done enough to create atmosphere and move on. I hope she picks somewhere cooler for her next setting though – I’m still suffering from vicarious heatstroke… 😉

  3. Sigh. Perhaps the culprit lies in the adult fiction guidelines many publishers have that state that 80,000 to 100,000 word novels are required for acquisition. Some stories can be told in about 40,000 or 50,000 good words. The author is forced to throw a bunch of filler in.

    • Ah, interesting! I’ve often wondered if the trend for such long crime novels was at the demand of the publishers, because nearly every mainstream crime novel now comes in at around 400 pages, whereas all the vintage crime I’ve been reading averages 220-280. Of course, some stories are complex enough to fill the space but too often the middle is just waffle. Admittedly, five years or so ago, they were averaging 500 pages, so at least they seem to be heading in the right direction…

  4. I know I rated this one higher than you, but you are absolutely spot-on in your assessment. With this being my first novel from her, the highs were very high and balanced the lows better, but I can definitely remember the draggy, repetitive bits. Thoughtful, well-balanced review, as always, FF.

    • Thanks, Jennifer! 😀 I often wonder if it’s because I’m not a particularly fast reader that makes the mid-section flab bother me so much – it can bog me down for two or three days if it begins to lose my interest. But she’s by no means alone – I reckon most crime fiction is about a hundred pages too long at the moment – the vintage crime novels rarely top 300 pages and feel much tighter.

        • It’s quite rare for me to really devour a book (although I just did this afternoon!). I usually read three at the same time so only read smallish chunks of each each day. That means it can take me several days to read a crime novel, and if they’re flabby in the middle it really shows up then…

    • Oh ha ha! Now I came late, VERY late to Harper’s table, accepting this one as a Vine ARC, to see if I would find what all the fuss was about. And fell, hook, line and sinker. I adored this, in its disturbing way, and like another of your commenters, did not find it slow. I slowed to its pace. And the intensity grew for me. I questioned whether it actually WAS crime fiction at all though. Obviously it’s lit ficciness spoke to me. I’ve since read, and loved, both the earlier ones – but this remains my favourite! And has left me feeling as anxious about the vast interiors of Australian desert as I am about the vast emptiness of the Polar ice caps. Though I wish that they were not shrinking and that floodplains and deserts would not be growing….But that’s another story, and looks to be happening quickly – the climate editor paring this particular earth book back to the bone. (!)

      • Interesting! I feel from various reviews of each of her books that people seem to prefer whichever one they read first – maybe it’s that initial introduction to her style that makes it feel special, with the other ones not having quite the same impact of originality. I do think it’s lit-ficcy, but I always have mixed feeling about crime being done as lit-fic. Sometimes it works brilliantly, sometimes it just takes away from it being crime. I definitely think to work properly as crime fiction, novels need to be sharper – hence, usually shorter. This one did feel more like crime than lit-fic overall to me (unlike, say, Suzanne Rindell, who always feels more like lit-fic than crime) so I felt it needed to get to the point quicker. I’m still recovering from vicarious heat-stroke – you’d think the Australian government would stop trying to deny global warming, wouldn’t you??

    • I’m disappointed you didn’t love this, but I’m still looking forward to reading it myself. Agree with you about the heat, we’re expecting high 30s tomorrow in Melbourne and I’m ready to melt.

      • Hopefully you’ll enjoy it more than me – most reviews I’ve seen have been glowing! Urghh! If we get up to the high 20s, which is rare, I feel as if I’m going to spontaneously combust, so the idea of the high 30s horrifies me! Make sure you have a plentiful supply of ice lollies… and a hat!!

        • I just read a review by wadholloway, theaustralianlegend, who disliked it too… he was scathing!
          I used to love the heat, but as I get older it’s a struggle. Mid-autumn is much more to my taste these days.

          • Haha – just popped across and looked – he really doesn’t think highly of her, does he? makes me seem quite kind, really… 😉

            I’m a winter girl – I much prefer to be too cold than too warm. Hot chocolate, fires, woolly socks… bliss!

  5. I have another book by this author on my wish list (The Dry), but I’ve seen this one making the rounds and considered adding it, too. We’ll see.

    For me, it’s often the first 50 or so pages that I find slow. Then (hopefully) it takes off for me. It does seem like there are an awful lot of books out there now that could do with a good dose of editing (and cutting!).

    • I absolutely loved The Dry and still think it’s her best book by miles, so if you do go for one, that’s the one I’d recommend. I think she’s suffering a bit from the very high expectations raised by The Dry – her following two novels have both had a lot to recommend them but don’t reach quite the same standard. I’m never convinced having a runaway success with a debut novel is good for an author in the long-run. (Though it must be fun at the time!) In general, I think crime fiction is way too long at the moment – the vintage crime books I’ve been reading rarely top 300 pages, and feel much tighter all round…

  6. Sounds like an interesting concept, but even though I enjoy warm weather, I’m not particularly enamored of searing heat and painful loneliness! You make some excellent points, FF, about the flabbiness of too many fiction middles, as well as the scarcity of hard editing available in today’s publishing world. I can’t lay ALL the fault at the author’s feet. We’re told to write the best book we can, but all of us hope there will be many more eyes than our own to polish it before it’s sent out into the world. Sadly, that doesn’t seem to happen, even with the best sellers.

    • I must admit the idea of all that heat appals me – I much prefer winter to summer even here, where the temperatures never get very high even in a heatwave! Interestingly, L Marie was saying that authors are guided by publishers to write to a certain length, so I can see why they might have to use filler in the middle. But I’m a great believer in a book being the length it needs to be to tell the story and no longer. I’d rather read a tight novella than a flabby 400 pages…

  7. Oh sorry – I put my comment in the wrong place, mid a conversation between you and another poster. Blame my inattention to the vagaries of tablet scroll and tap. I.e. My inattentive fat finger! A comment box appears:? Fill it and THEN look and see where it appears once you have posted…

  8. Fear not, you are not being grouchy. I share this same opinion-books are way too long these days, I just finished one that could have done with a huge edit! I share your same opinion about those super hot places, it would be such a slog to live there.

    • Especially crime fiction! The vintage crime I’ve been reading is so much shorter on average – usually well under 300 pages – and I think it works much better. I couldn’t live in those temperatures – my two weeks in Ontario in July convinced me I need to be cold to survive…

    • I’m sure reading all these vintage crime novels has made me even less tolerant of bookish obesity. On average, they’re over a hundred pages shorter than current ones, and yet roughly twice as good… grrr!

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