Five women reluctantly pick up their backpacks and start walking along a muddy track. Only four come out on the other side. The hike through the rugged Giralang Ranges is meant to take the office colleagues out of their air-conditioned comfort zone and encourage teamwork and resilience. At least, that’s what the corporate retreat website advertises.
Federal Police investigator Aaron Falk has a keen interest in the whereabouts of the missing hiker, Alice Russell. Because Alice knew secrets, about the company she worked for and the people she worked with.
The four returning women tell Falk a tale of fear, violence and fractured trust during their days in the remote Australian bushland. And as Falk delves into the disappearance of Alice, he begins to suspect some dangers ran far deeper than anyone knew.
Force of Nature is the second book in the Aaron Falk series which began with The Dry but this time the focus moves to the wild and unforgiving landscape of the Giralang Ranges where the rain seems to be relentless. Just as the drought-ridden outback played an important part in the atmosphere of the first novel, the Giralang Ranges provide a sinister back drop to the events that play out in this novel. The region’s historical connection to the serial killer also adds to the overall creepiness factor, especially in the flashback sequences where every sound or movement in the dark seems magnified.
At the heart of this story is the disappearance of Alice Russell who has a connection with Aaron Falk through his investigation into her company’s activities, however since each of her colleagues has a reason to despise her, it is by no means a given that Alice’s disappearance is connected to Aaron’s case. Nevertheless, Aaron feels guilty for putting Alice in danger and his primary objective is to find her despite the fact his boss is more concerned about the missing documents Alice was supposed to provide. This time we get to see Aaron doing his actual job which still doesn’t sound very exciting but Harper manages to hold our interest because Aaron is a very sympathetic character who genuinely cares about people.
Aaron is partnered with Carmen Cooper and they make a likeable team with a frisson of unresolved sexual tension despite the fact Carmen is due to get married. I’m not sure if Carmen is going to be Aaron’s partner but I wouldn’t be adverse to seeing them paired permanently. Aaron remains to be an intriguing character and although we’ve learned a great deal about him so far, I still don’t feel like I know him as a character and am looking forward to seeing more layers being peeled back. While Aaron still seems like a loner, his interactions with other people, like Carmen, are important tools for drawing him out. He’s also pushed more into the background in this novel which doesn’t help the situation.
While the pace is initially quite slow, Harper keeps everything ticking along nicely as the narrative shifts from the search for Alice in the present to flashbacks of the women on their retreat which inevitably leads to the events surrounding Alice’s disappearance. The tensions between the various members of the group are revealed as they interact with each other at different points during the retreat and it is evident they all have grudges. None of the women, including Alice, are without their faults and it was fascinating watching the office politics intensify in the wild setting.
The two threads of the plot eventually converge into one and when the mystery surrounding Alice’s disappearance is finally resolved, it is done in a satisfying way although not exactly cliche free. While Force of Nature is nowhere near as good as The Dry, it was still enjoyable and I’m interested to see what happens to Aaron next.