Force of Nature is about five women from the same company in Melbourne who go on a team-building hike and camp in a remote forest. At the end, only four return. Alice, the woman who is missing, is a witness in a separate investigation run by series protagonist Aaron Falk so he and his partner hotfoot it up to the site to join the investigation.
Of course the five women, all of different ranks within the organisation, have a complex network of conflicts and relationships, and they are placed in a highly stressful situation, and, just to crank up the tension, this is the stamping ground of a now-deceased serial killer whose last alleged victim was never found, so this should be an intriguing read, but it never really came alive for me.
Firstly, I don’t buy the premise. It’s a matter for debate how much realism matters in a work of fiction, but if you have to suspend disbelief before you’ve become involved into the story, that’s a big hurdle. We are expected to believe that a respected corporate events company sent a group of women off into the cold and rain with one map, which wasn’t even laminated (it ran in the rain), no mobile phones, no way of raising the alarm in the event of a medical emergency, and ran no checks on their progress over the four days of the expedition. I’m not saying this would never happen, but if it did, surely the police’s first thought would be to investigate them for at best criminal neglect and at worst complicity in a crime or its coverup? However, it’s taken as read that this is all perfectly fine.
Next, the disappearance of Alice is being investigated by the state police, which means Falk and his partner, as federal investigators of financial crimes, have only a tangential role in her investigation. They wander around with no clear sense of purpose, occasionally interviewing witnesses and suspects who have already been interviewed. In their downtime, Falk stares mournfully at his father’s old maps, which he happened to bring with him in his old rucksack (along with, implausibly, Alice’s bank statements) and thinks about their relationship.
The novel alternates between the points of view of Falk during the investigation, and the women during the hike. This kind of structure can work, but here it leads to quite a lot of repetition and the suspense is not that great. It’s neither a police procedural, where we can follow the clues, nor a psychological thriller where we have strong empathy with the women, wondering if and how they will all survive.
If Falk is the protagonist we might expect him to solve the mystery, however one vital clue comes when one of the women admits to something she’d earlier kept quiet, and at the denouement he makes a deduction based on a flimsy piece of forensic evidence for which there are any number of plausible explanations.
I haven’t read Jane Harper’s first novel, The Dry, but I’ve heard good things about it so I was looking forward to this one. Force of Nature feels like it was either written in a hurry or is a rehashed novel-in-a-drawer. It’s obviously tempting to get another book out quickly when you’ve had major success, but I wonder if publishers might do better to take the long view.
I received a copy of Force of Nature from the publisher via Netgalley.
View Force of Nature on Goodreads