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The Dry: An extract

Read Wednesday, 3 Jun 2015
Image: Minister for Creative Industries Martin Foley presents the award to Jane Harper
Minister for Creative Industries Martin Foley presents the award to Jane Harper at the Emerging Writers’ Festival opening night (*@FreemanKirsten/Twitter*)

Last Tuesday, Jane Harper’s The Dry won the 2015 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript – joining the ranks of past winners including Miles Allinson, Maxine Beneba Clarke and Graeme Simsion.

Judges Jeff Sparrow, Clare Renner and Else Fitzgerald described the manuscript as ‘a taut detective novel in which a multiple homicide drags a city policeman back to the small country township he fled years earlier,’ and ‘an accomplished piece of crime writing; one destined to find a wide audience’.

Today, we’re pleased to be able to share an extract of Harper’s winning story.

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It wasn’t as though the farm hadn’t seen death before, and the blowflies didn’t discriminate. To them there was little difference between a carcass and a corpse. 

The drought had left the flies spoiled for choice that summer. They sought out unblinking eyes and sticky wounds as the farmers of Kiewarra levelled their rifles at skinny livestock. No rain meant no feed. And no feed made for difficult decisions, as the tiny town shimmered under another day of burning blue sky.

‘It’ll break,’ the farmers said as the months ticked over into a second year. They repeated the words out loud to each other like a mantra, and under their breath to themselves like a prayer.

But the weathermen in Melbourne disagreed. Besuited and sympathetic in air conditioned studios, they made passing reference most nights at six. Officially the worst conditions in a century.

At least the blowflies were happy. The fresh finds that day were unusual, though. Smaller and with a smoothness to the flesh. Not that it mattered. They were the same where it counted. The glassy eyes. The wet wounds.

The body in the clearing was the freshest. It took the flies slightly longer to find the two in the farmhouse, despite the front door swinging open like an invitation. Those that ventured beyond the initial offer in the hallway were rewarded with the second find, in the bedroom. This one was smaller, but less engulfed by competition.

First on the scene, the flies swarmed contentedly in the heat as the blood pooled black over tiles and carpet.

Outside, washing hung still on the rotary line, bone dry and stiff from the sun. A child’s scooter lay abandoned on the stepping stone path. Just one human heart beat within a kilometre radius of the farm.

So nothing reacted when deep inside the house, the baby started crying.

Chapter One

Even those that didn’t darken the door of the church from one Christmas to the next could tell there would be more mourners than seats. A bottleneck of black and grey was already forming at the entrance as Aaron Falk drove up, trailing a cloud of dust and cracked leaves.

Neighbours, determined but trying not to appear so, jostled each other for the advantage as the scrum trickled through the doors. Across the road, the media circled.

Falk parked his sedan next to a ute that had also seen better days, and killed the engine. The air conditioner rattled into silence and the interior began to warm like a tin box in the sun. He allowed himself a moment to scan the crowd, although he didn’t really have time. He’d dragged his heels the whole way from Melbourne, blowing out the six-hour drive to more than seven. Satisfied no-one looked familiar, he stepped out of the car. 

The heat draped itself around him like a blanket. He snatched opened the backseat door to get his dark jacket, searing his knuckles in the process. After the briefest hesitation, he grabbed his hat from the seat. Wide-brimmed in stiff brown canvas, it didn’t go with his funeral suit. But with skin the blue hue of skimmed milk for half the year, and a cancerous-looking cluster of freckles for the rest, Falk was prepared to risk the fashion faux pas.

Pale and interesting from birth, with close cropped white blonde hair and invisible eyelashes, he’d often felt during his thirty-eight years the Australian sun was trying to tell him something. It was a message easier to ignore in the tall shadows of Melbourne than in Kiewarra, where shade was a fleeting commodity.

He glanced once at the road leading back out of town, then at his watch. The funeral, the wake, one night and he was gone. Eighteen hours, he calculated. Not a single one more. 

Read more about the awards – and the two other shortlisted manuscripts by Jim McIntyre and Michelle Wright – at the 2015 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript page.

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Acknowledgment of Country

The Wheeler Centre acknowledges the Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung people of the Kulin Nation as the traditional owners of the land on which we work. We pay our respects to the people of the Kulin Nation and all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Elders, past and present.