The Lost Man

of Harper's third novel is ostensibly Nathan Bright, a divorced cattleman working an unproductive plot of outback Queensland 1500 km's west of Brisbane, but most of the male characters here could qualify.

When Nathan's brother's body is found on an old stock man's grave, his well-provisioned car nine kilometres away, the extent of their troubles begins to reveal itself.

Again Harper dumps us in a desolate and unforgiving landscape - last year's Force of Nature involved a group of corporate women adrift in the NSW ranges, but the characters here are born and bred in the Outback where man is slave to the environment and the women, often, enslaved to the men - its vast expanse only serving to bring the plight of the characters into sharper relief.

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On one level it's another Outback whodunit like her debut 2016's The Dry, but this novel... is most memorably a dark, family drama.

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That a man might one day decide to just walk off into the desert because of shame, debt or depression - strangely understandable.

Here Harper observes - "people were either completely fine, or very not" - and, for many reasons, the Bright family (and one senses Harper had fun coming up with that surname) are very much not.

On one level it's another Outback whodunit like her debut 2016's The Dry, but this novel (her first without damaged police agent Aaron Falk) is most memorably a dark, family drama.

It helps that Harper's an even better story-teller than she was just two years ago - there's none of the melodrama of The Dry's finale and the plot machinations here are sewn seamlessly into the narrative.

And no-one writes brooding malevolence like Harper.

While there's little actual violence on display the atmosphere's seeped in it; a helicopter landing at sunset is - "a black bird against the indigo death throes of the day"; a man sabotages his partner's car so it'll breakdown a couple of hours into her escape forcing her to radio him to rescue her and the kids; another hides the key to the gun cupboard as he sees a colleague deteriorate.

Harper was born and raised in Manchester and came to Australia as a child (returning in her twenties) and perhaps it's that distance that enables her to capture the dark recesses of the Australian psyche with such acuity.

I read this with the growing realisation that this was not only another superb thriller, but a classic work of fiction by one of the finest novelists now working.

2019 Man Booker judges - are you listening?

The Lost Man
Jane Harper
(MacMillan $37.99)