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Nature wears many faces: hostile or beneficent, tranquil or enraged. Its harsher side is a major presence in Jane Harper’s previous two mysteries featuring Australian federal agent Aaron Falk (she’s also written two non-Falk novels). In THE DRY, her bestselling 2017 debut (it won the CWA Gold Dagger Award in the UK), this astute sleuth takes on an apparent murder-suicide in his drought-stricken hometown. FORCE OF NATURE (2018) sees him investigate a death during a camping trip in a rugged nature reserve outside Melbourne.

But in EXILES, the third and final Falk book, nature comes off as seductive rather than threatening. The Marralee Valley, a tightly knit community in South Australia, is beautiful and apparently serene; the main local excitement is an annual food and wine festival. A key theme in this novel is, in fact, the tension between small-town life and big-city workaholism. Falk himself is caught between his satisfying but demanding job as a financial investigator in Melbourne and the slower pace and everyday pleasures of Marralee --- including a promising romance with an attractive widow. (I should say here that while it’s helpful to have read the two previous Falk books, yielding a more textured sense of this lonely, complicated man, EXILES can certainly be enjoyed by a first-timer.)

"Figuring out what happened to Kim is not the only suspenseful aspect of EXILES; you’ll also be engaged by Falk’s decision about where to take his life. Over three books, I’ve become very fond of this smart, unpretentious fellow."

But Marralee is not as benign as it seems, and Falk is still a policeman, even though his visit to the town is for an entirely pleasant and unofficial event: He’s to be godfather to the son of his good friends Greg and Rita Raco. The Racos don’t live in Marralee (Harper fans may remember from THE DRY that he is the police sergeant in Falk’s hometown of Kiewarra), but Greg’s brother, Charlie, a winemaker, does. The christening, scheduled for a year ago, was postponed because of a baffling missing-person case: Kim Gillespie, a friend of the family, had vanished from the festival, apparently abandoning her husband and newborn daughter, Zoe. Now, Falk is back, and he finds the christening overshadowed by the lingering pain and uncertainty of those who love Kim: her husband, Rohan; Charlie Raco, her ex-partner; and Kim and Charlie’s daughter, Zara. And there’s another mystery afoot that rouses Falk’s Holmesian instincts: The husband of his love interest, Gemma, was killed in an unsolved hit-and-run five years ago.

I know: That’s a lot of names and connections. You practically need a reference chart! But that’s the point: All these people were born and bred in Marralee, even if some are now, as the title suggests, exiles. That includes Kim, who had moved to Adelaide and was returning for a visit, though for the last couple of years she’d seemed weirdly remote from her old friends. It’s an insular group with a history stretching back to childhood and adolescence. In EXILES, Harper shows us the sweetness of an intimate community, but also its pockets of darkness. The book is almost the classic locked-room mystery: Who among these apparently warm and upright individuals --- the former “footy” star (that’s soccer to you and me), for example, or the meticulous local police chief --- is a villain in disguise?

I don’t think you’ll guess: I didn’t. Harper is very good at casting a wide and subtle net of suspicion, and it wasn’t until fewer than 100 pages from the end, when the point of view temporarily shifts from Falk to that of other characters, that I began to suspect the truth.

I did find the dual timeline a bit confusing. Falk narrates his current visit to Marralee while also remembering the events of a year ago, specifically the day of Kim’s disappearance. There are also flashbacks to how he and Gemma met in Melbourne 16 months earlier. A certain narrative seamlessness and pace are sacrificed as the reader gradually becomes accustomed to the temporal back-and-forth, and this makes for a sluggish start.

At the same time, the way Harper gives us an insider’s glimpse of a policeman’s mind is one of this thriller’s strong points. Take Falk’s deep skepticism about the accuracy of witness statements: “[W]hat they’d seen and what they thought they’d seen were not necessarily one and the same thing.” Or his observation that Greg Raco’s only professional weakness is his lack of a poker face: “The guy wore his emotions all over him,” well short of the police ideal of “inscrutable neutrality.” There’s also a lot of nice cop-to-cop rapport as he and Greg team up again, as they did in THE DRY.

Falk really does love that moment when he cracks a case: “[Y]ou’ve been untangling something for ages --- years sometimes --- and it can feel like it’s all going nowhere,” he tells Gemma, “but then suddenly one thing changes, and it’s like…the world makes sense. Everything fits together and it’s so clear.” Will he give that up and move to Marralee? Maybe, because there’s a downside to his work as well: “The resolution’s great,” he says. “I just wish it didn’t take a million emails to get there.” (Don’t we all feel that way sometimes?)

Figuring out what happened to Kim is not the only suspenseful aspect of EXILES; you’ll also be engaged by Falk’s decision about where to take his life. Over three books, I’ve become very fond of this smart, unpretentious fellow. I’m so glad Harper decided to give him a chance at love.

Reviewed by Katherine B. Weissman on January 31, 2023

by Jane Harper

  • Publication Date: January 31, 2023
  • Genres: Fiction, Mystery, Suspense, Thriller
  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Flatiron Books
  • ISBN-10: 1250235359
  • ISBN-13: 9781250235350