Jane Harper's latest mystery returns to the Australian Outback, but instead of Federal Agent Aaron Falk as the narrator, the murder in The Lost Man is investigated by the victim's brother Nathan, a character who grew on Harper the more she wrote about him. The Lost Man begins with a death in the desert, and a family struggling to figure out what happened and why. The setting is harsh, desolate, and perfect for this mystery. Family history plays an important role in the story: Nathan, his brother Bub, and their now-dead brother Cam were raised in a house beset by violence. Their father is deceased, but all three brothers have stayed on to work and live in the incredibly harsh surroundings. Cam was the solid one, always responsible, the brother everyone liked. So how did he, of all people, end up dead? Deceptive twists sneak up on the reader, and with The Lost Man Harper has crafted another slow-burn mystery that catches the reader unaware right up to the surprise ending.
Harper came to town on the release date of The Lost Man, and we got together for a chat in the midst of our crazy Seattle snow week, which Harper (being Australian) said she found quite beautiful.
I asked Harper about returning to a setting similar to the one she wrote about in The Dry, and she said she'd become interested in the day-to-day business of living and working in this part of Australia: how the people there communicate with one another, and the emotional and psychological impact of living in such a remote place. That became the background for The Lost Man, a novel Harper said "was a lot of fun to write." She went to Outback Queensland to do research, meeting families who live there full-time as well as temporary workers who pass through the immense cattle stations. Harper told us she wanted to capture the vast open space of the area in her novel, and I think she absolutely achieved that.
During her research, one of the things that struck Harper most was a visit with a police officer who had worked in a town much like the one Harper's characters inhabit. This man had worked for ten years as the only police officer patrolling an area the size of the U.K., and his insight and stories really stood out for Harper: "The dynamics that come to play, the risks involved with living somewhere so remote; things can go wrong really quickly, and when things go wrong it's not easy to get help.... When I went out there I had a bit of an idea at that stage of how I wanted the story to play out, but I was interested to know if that was something that was going to work within the confines of the plot. The thing that really surprised me was that, if anything, I'd underestimated how harsh and brutal the landscape is, and how really quickly things can go wrong for people."
So what happened to Aaron Falk, the investigator we've come to love from The Dry and Force of Nature? Harper said she "just knew, really early on, that there was just no way I would be able to authentically get him into this book, so I made the decision that this was going to be a standalone. I think you always want to have the best characters to tell the story in the best possible way, and I knew for this book it would be centered around this family, particularly around the character of Nathan, who's the oldest brother. And I loved writing about them. Nathan really developed for me as a character as the book went on, as his story unfolded. I still think about him a lot, even now."
Now that The Lost Man is out, what's next for Jane Harper? She's just finished up the screenplay for The Lost Man and is in the early stages of working on her fourth book, another Australian mystery with the tone and feel of her first three. Harper said she's got a few ideas, but isn't sure yet if Aaron Falk will make his return in the next one. "I definitely would want to return to him at some point, but it's about finding that right story for him, something that will move his character along and give him a really good vehicle. It's always about finding the right characters, so I guess when I decide on the story, it'll be about which characters are going to tell it best."