Force of Nature by Jane Harper is the second book in the Aaron Falk series, where five women go on a hike and only four return, begging the question: how well do you really know the people you work with?
Last year, I approached Jane Harper’s international bestseller, The Dry, with a bit of trepidation. All those five-star ratings and breathless reviews made me wary. But I picked it up to read as part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge that I participate in each year. From the first pages, I was hooked and did not want to put it down.
Jane Harper’s first novel was no fluke. Fans of place-based novels have an exciting new friend in Australian Federal Agent Aaron Falk. In Force of Nature, Falk—a financial crimes investigator—is in the midst of a case he’s working on with his partner, Carmen Cooper. Their investigation is part of a larger operation, and their target is one of the women away on a weekend hike. Carmen is new to the series and serves not so much as a love interest—although there is some of that tension—but more as someone who holds up a mirror to Falk so he can see himself.
In the following exchange, you get a sense of what motivates Falk to do the work he does, as well as the attitude people have towards financial crime. King, the man with whom Falk is talking, is the lead investigator in the search for a missing person:
King nodded, but Falk could see a look settle in his eyes. It was one he knew well. Falk was aware that in the grand scheme of things, most people ranked money laundering somewhere between shoplifting and fare evasion. It shouldn’t happen, of course, but a handful of rich people determined to avoid their fair share of tax was hardly worth stretching police resources for.
It was about more than that, Falk would sometimes try to explain. If the time was right and the other person’s eyes weren’t too glazed. If serious money was being hidden, it was for a reason. Those pristine white collars only got grubbier the further down the trail, until by the end they were downright dirty. Falk hated it. He hated everything about it. He hated the way men in plush offices were able to wash their hands at arm’s length and tell themselves it was simply a bit of creative accounting. The way they could spend their bonuses and buy their mansions and polish their cars, all the while pretending that they couldn’t begin to guess what was rotting at the far end. Drugs. Illegal firearms. Child exploitation. It varied, but it was all paid for in the common currency of human misery.
These sentiments come up again later when Falk wishes he knew more about the bigger picture of the operation of which his investigation is a part. But he also knows from experience that the details don’t really matter. In the end, “the bigger picture always showed the same thing: a handful of people at the top of the tree feeding off the vulnerable below.”
In a novel about white-collar crime, you’d expect the action to take place in the city, in office buildings, fancy restaurants, and banks—not the great outdoors. The plot, setting, and action of this novel are fresh and, dare I say, fun (to read about, not to experience firsthand). The novel goes back and forth between Falk and Carmen and the women who are trapped in the fictional Giralang Ranges, a rugged forest landscape that makes it seem like the women are as isolated as characters in a locked-room mystery.
This group of coworkers from Melbourne are on a weekend backpacking trip, one of those dreaded corporate extracurricular events that’s supposed to develop camaraderie and leadership but that often provides more fodder for office gossip. The excursion is managed by an outdoor adventure company. The trails are well-marked, and food was to be provided at the second night’s campsite, but the women never make it there.
It was exciting to read about a group of women in the woods. These five women range in age from a 20-ish archival clerk who is new to the company to the 50-year-old chair of the company who is also the founder’s daughter. Of these five women, the two youngest are sisters (twins, actually), and the two eldest went to school together 20 years ago. There’s baggage between these women as well as problems at home for the two who have teenaged daughters. Harper excels at sketching these women, both where they are in their individual lives (ages, jobs) and, consequentially, how they interact with one another (personalities, personal circumstances).
To add another layer to the thrill, the woods they’re dropped in aren’t just any old woods—they’re in an area where, 20 years prior, a serial killer took the lives of five women, one of whose body was never found. Things go haywire fast, and only four women walk out of the woods.
I was kept guessing about what was going to happen and why. Harper includes some very well-done red herrings.
The action of the book is infused with the various meanings of the title. Force of Nature. What comes to mind when you hear this phrase? It’s an idiom that can have either negative or positive connotation when applied to humans, and Harper plays with the nuances of this in her main characters and the situations they find themselves in.
And nature certainly plays a big part of this novel like it did in The Dry. In that story, it was bone-dry draught conditions that threatened, and here, it is wet and cold. Not the most enjoyable backpacking conditions for weekend corporate types. Harper has so many different “forces of nature” at work between and among her characters that the story effortlessly carried me along as a reader. She excels at depicting women and their relationships.
One of the biggest forces of nature is the primal, bodily hunger and thirst that the women experience. It builds on a foundation of annoyance over having to be on this adventure in the first place—blistered feet, shoulders rubbed raw from backpack straps, and the agony of knowing that even if they hadn’t lost their cooking fuel, there’s nothing available to cook. The deeper the women walk into nature and into the hopelessness of their situation, the more their professional decorum and social niceties are rubbed away. It’s a little like The Lord of the Flies meets Lisa Scottoline and Nevada Barr.
Take this lovely scene. Bree is an assistant and Jill is the chair of the company:
Without a word, [Jill] moved towards it. A pool of rainwater had collected in the bowl of the stump. Jill, who Bree had once seen refuse a herbal tea because the leaves had infused too long, suddenly dipper her cupped hands into the stump, lifted them to her lips and swallowed deeply. She paused to pick something black from her mouth, flicking it off her finger before dipping her hands in again.
Bree swallowed, her own tongue immediately swollen and dry, and stepped up to the stump. She plunged her hands in, the first scoop sloshing over her knuckles as her arm collided with Jill’s. She went in again, lifting her palms to her lips more hastily this time. The water tasted dank and coarse, but she didn’t stop, dipping in again, now jostling for space with four other pairs of hands. Someone pushed her hands out of the way, and Bree shoved back, ignoring the pain as her fingers bent backwards. She plunged in again, fighting for her share, the sound of grunts and swallows loud in her ears. She kept her head down, determined to cram as much into her mouth as possible. Before she realized it, the water was gone, and her fingernails were scraping the mossy bottom.
It’s details like this that put you right in the middle of the action with the alpha and the young wolf.
The forces of nature might be good or bad, but they’re never indifferent.
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Chris Wolak is an avid reader of crime fiction, history, and classics. She writes about books at WildmooBooks.com and is the cohost of the podcast Book Cougars. You can also find her on Twitter @chriswolak.