Gwen Moffat lives in Cumbria. Her novels are set in remote communities ranging from the Hebrides to the American West. The crimes fit their environment, swelling that dreadful record of sin in the smiling countryside cited by Sherlock Holmes. The style echoes this: rustic charm masking horror.
“Who really killed the Hadler family?” blares the cover of this novel.
With a young mother and six-year-old son shot dead and the father’s fingerprints on the gun in his mouth; a traditional mystery is promised. What makes this one different is that it’s set in Australia but not the Australia of billabongs and crocodiles and dazzling beaches but a bleak world of small farmers fighting to survive a protracted drought. The river is an empty water course, sheep are dying in droves, banks are foreclosing; the only things thriving are the carrion flies.
For the people in and around the small town of Kiewarra the slaughter of the Hadler family on their farm is the final and incomprehensible disaster. Someone has to be blamed and the scapegoat is Aaron Falk: the boy who left town twenty years ago and now returns as a Melbourne policeman for the funeral of his old school friend Luke Hadler, the man alleged to have killed his wife and child and himself. But it’s not only his association with a killer that that earns Falk hostility; twenty years ago he was driven out of town, with his father, when both were suspected of involvement in the death by drowning of Aaron’s girl-friend.
Not everyone is hostile however. Luke Hadler’s mother is adamant that her son was as incapable of suicide as he was of murder and she prevails on Falk to find the truth where the local police have failed. That Falk’s expertise is in finance and fraud rather than homicide cuts no ice with the grieving mother and he agrees to make a start by looking into the Hadlers’ farm accounts.
Certainly there are rumours of Asian investors buying up impoverished properties, of land disputes and bad neighbours, shifted fences and poisoned livestock. But amidst a plethora of old remembered gossip Falk catches glimpses of that other death, two decades ago, directly involving himself; glimpses which become substantial links, as pressure is brought to bear on him to stop investigating the Hadler case, to stop probing anywhere and return to Melbourne.
Tension rises in the community as the continued drought and the loss of livelihoods are threatened by a new element. The town has become a tinder box with too many people desperate to keep their lives, and more: their sins, possibly crimes, a secret from this intrusive cop.
This novel depends on plot rather than character. There are plenty of red herrings but genuine clues can be nebulous with questions of abuse and homosexuality smacking of titillation. An ingenious puzzle then but the solution leaving one oddly dissatisfied.