I read Jane Harper's debut novel, The Dry, at the end of last year and wondered why I hadn't read it as soon as it was published. The Dry introduced the character of Federal Agent Aaron Falk, and it was easily one of my favorite reads last year. That it was a debut novel was simply gobsmacking impressive. Now, in Force of Nature, Harper returns readers to Australia and Agent Falk, an honorable man whose baggage from his youth was explored in the first novel. We are still learning about this solitary figure in book two, with the focus on his relationship with his late father. But, those are the side notes that keep giving insight to the character and explain why he is where he is in life. There is an overwhelming problem with which to deal while we grow closer to the character, and that problem in Force of Nature is one of finding a needle in a haystack.
Five women and five men from the accounting firm of BaileyTennants go on a three-day team building trek in Australia's Giralang Mountains, routes and supplies provided by a professional excursion company for just such activities. But, at the end of the three days, as the men's team waits for the women's team to return to the base lodge, only four of the five women return. Aaron Falk gets involved in the disappearance because the missing team member, Alice Russell, was working with him to blow the whistle on the corrupt BaileyTennants accounting firm, a firm run by a brother and sister. The sister and brother were on the exercise, too, and Falk is concerned that Alice Russell may have been outed as a traitor before the trip. One thing is certain. The five women on the team have issues with one another, and Alice could be quite cutting with the others. Resentment would only grow with the time the women spent together. Falk and his partner, Carmen Cooper, can sense that the returning women are filtering their stories and holding back information, and at least one of them is holding back the key information to finding Alice. Sergeant King of the State Police is in charge of the search for Alice in the mountain ranges and keeps Falk and Carmen apprised of what is being done there. It's up to the two federal agents though to determine just what went on with Alice and the other women, as their investigation of the accounting firm depends on documents Alice was about to provide.
As Falk begins the investigation at the mountain range itself, he is confronted with ghosts, that of his father who hiked this wilderness and whose map of the area is in the backpack of his father's that Falk brings along to his lodgings, and there is the ghost of a serial killer who once used these mountains as a hiding place. The investigation when Falk is in Melbourne is fraught with complications of past and present relationships and trying to move forward with the surprise bringing down of a corrupt company. Falk's partner, Carmen, is an interesting new character who works well with the loner Falk and seems to have a well-balanced control of her life, although her upcoming nuptials give a bit of pause for thought. With hours becoming days, Falk and Carmen are losing hope for a happy ending with either Alice's survival or the success of their financial investigation into BaileyTennants.
There should be no doubt after reading Jane Harper's second Aaron Falk novel that Harper is an author of great skill and delivery. Her writing is as polished as any seasoned writer I read. Her grasp of creating a suspenseful story results in a thrilling read, with her on-target descriptions of an immense forest in the dark and trails that lead nowhere. The gas attendant at the only station close to the park entrance states, "It’s the panic that gets you. Makes it hard to trust what you’re seeing.”
Harper brings this panic into our minds with a masterful deftness. Force of Nature cements this series and this author as storytelling at its finest.