Early in her latest thriller, “The Lost Man,” Jane Harper introduces a legend about a stockman. It goes like this: In the 1890s there was a stockman, but he wasn’t exactly a stockman. He was a cattle rustler. He would take his horses in the wide, empty space of the arid Australian land and round loose cattle to sell them for cheap.
One day, the horses go nuts. Instead of continuing to herd cattle, the stockman stays with the horses. An hour passes and he’s gone. The campfire is still lit. The horse is still tied. A hundred kilometers south lies his body. Dead. No injuries, no water. According to the story, he was found the same day he disappeared.
In the stretches and stretches of hot, barren Australian land over a hundred years later, Jane Harper’s “The Lost Man” tells an eerily similar story. This time, it’s about three brothers: Nathan, the oldest, ostracized from the community and living three-hours from the closest human; Bub, the baby of the family, separated by 12 years from his oldest brother and Cam, dead beneath their feet. Like the myth of the stockman, Cam had no injuries, no water and was found only nine kilometers from his truck.
Cam has breathed in the barren Australian outback air since birth. How did he die?
Nathan decides to return to his smaller-than-small hometown to investigate his brother’s death with his fifteen-year-old son in tow. As Nathan examines his own regrets and past — his relationship with his family and the pieces of his brother that were hidden in plain sight — he stumbles upon a disturbing string of family mysteries. “The Lost Man” never stagnates, the more that Nathan uncovers, the more it seems that the once inconsequential trivialities prove to wield deeper and darker implications. “The Lost Man” forces you to question parts of the story that you accepted unequivocally and, like Nathan, examine what’s true, what’s not and the blurred line between.
Jane Harper’s style is sticky with the thick, Australian heat. The sparse sentences mirror the stretch and length of blank and vacant land. The weight of each page feels heavy as if the heat was palpable. As the tensions of the book rise, so does the temperature. Like Nathan sifting through more and more answers of Cam’s past, the reader must sift through tumbleweeds of red herrings. We’re parched for more details — more answers — and the book itself offers no reprieve. It’s not until the very last line that it feels like you can finally gulp mouthfuls of water. For a novel close to 400 pages, it’s easy to zoom through. With each page, there’s a nagging thought that something isn’t quite right. Was Cam’s death a murder, or was it suicide? Jane Harper artfully misdirects the readers so that by the very end, the twist is like a slap in the face. It’s easy to think: How could I have missed this?
As Nathan pieces together more clarity about Cam, the small-town becomes less stifling. It reflects Nathan’s trajectory from being a reticent and depressed man to a relaxed and receptive person. Instead of minimizing the mistakes of his past, Nathan is able to come to terms with his own life and mend rifts with his son.
“The Lost Man” is more than a mystery. It’s a story about family and the people that you think you know. By the end, you learn to appreciate how a family isolated in a blanket of nothingness manages to survive by holding onto their powerful thread of human connection.