‘The Survivors’ Doesn’t Need Murder to Succeed (but it has that, too)

There’s no shortage of mysteries and thrillers set in small towns. That was basically the bread and butter of Masterpiece: Mystery for decades (not that I’m complaining), to say nothing of the dozens of murders Jessica Fletcher solved singlehandedly in her twee little Cabot Cove.

God Save the Queen (of fictional mystery novels)!

Despite the proliferation of cozy mysteries, it’s rare that they get the small-town experience right. Usually they focus on the saturation of nosy neighbors and affair-driven betrayals. Maybe there are some intergenerational grudges sprinkled in there. But they miss that je ne sais quois of living in a place where most families have been around for generations. Where family trees tangle together like briars. Where secrets and disappointments and misdeeds loom long after the one who created or committed them dies or leaves. Where success awaits just outside the city limits, but even wanting to look beyond that line is equal to disloyalty to your heritage. Sure, not all small towns have those things, but a lot do. Mine did.

If Jane Harper didn’t grow up in a place like that, I would be shocked because she draws it so perfectly in her books. In both previous novels (The Dry and The Lost Man), she has explored guilt, grief, and misunderstandings that stretch over decades in ways that feel like she’s capturing more nuance of those things, not just rehashing a successful template. The Survivors is no exception.

Also, there just aren’t that many books set in Australia.

In this trip Down Under, we follow Kieran Elliot, returning to his small costal hometown to help his aging mother pack up his childhood home and manage his father, whose early and profound dementia requires a move to a nursing home in the nearest city. He brings with him a girlfriend and their infant daughter—and a past that attracts guilt and blame for the townspeople he thought he left behind. Twelve years before, he carelessly lingered too long in the sea caves just before a cataclysmic storm, and when his older brother and brother’s friend came to save him, their boat capsized and they both died. Kieran, the source of the rescue mission, survived to take the guilt for both of their deaths.

His friends Ash, Olivia, and Sean are happy to see him, even though Sean also lost a brother in the accident, but Sean’s nephew, Liam, is less congenial. When Olivia’s roommate, Bronte, is discovered dead on the beach near Kieran’s home, the twelve-year-old tragedy comes bubbling back. Because not everyone’s satisfied with Kieran’s story about why he was out in the caves so long, nor is the matter of Gabby, a fourteen-year-old girl—and Olivia’s sister—who went missing in the storm as settled as the official story suggests. Kieran is determined to let the suspicion wash over him like foamy surf, but when suspicion turns to his father—officially the last person to see the girl before she went missing—and as a new resident digs up new details about the ship’s crash, Kieran realizes he can’t just run away from this tragedy.

Small towns? Full of secrets. Small costal towns? Good luck finding someone who isn’t filled with shame!

There’s a lot going on here, which is a little disorienting at first, though certainly not to the point of wanting to leave The Survivors on the nightstand. As mentioned, Harper has a knack for showing the knots complicating relationships between groups of people and families and even single, supposedly straightforward friendships. The way wounds have festered over a dozen years, not just from the tragedy but the fallout that came after, makes every secret, every amount of tension seem like suspicion, and while you’re mostly sure such-and-such character is innocent, it’s hard to say for sure.

In terms of the whodunnit, I wasn’t altogether sure there would be one until quite late in the story—Bronte was murdered, but I wouldn’t have put it outside the realm of possibility that it was some convoluted accident but the appearance of malice was enough to muddy the waters, as it were. And I was content with this possibility. (As a minor spoiler, there is, in fact, a whodunnit, and I did not see the “who” coming.) Murder is the end of a story, as the saying goes, and there’s plenty to dredge up. Plenty for Kieran to work through, and the rest of the small cast of characters. The emotional payoff is rich.

And not just for Kieran (though certainly for him, too). Mia has to work through her own feelings of guilt and blame for the fight she got in with Gabby just before the girl’s disappearance. Kieran’s parents both have to come to terms with the gulf separating their feelings between their live son and their dead one. Gabby’s mother sees her old self reflected in Bronte’s grieving parents, even as she continues to fruitlessly lobby for her daughter’s case to be reopened. Even Ash, never in the running for bad guy, has to deal with the loss of the property that had been in the family for generations before being bought by a new local celebrity, and with being left behind when his BFF Kieran got out of Dodge. That was all more than compelling enough to keep me reading this in a single sitting.

There aren’t the sort of shootouts or chases you get with many thrillers. Harper is far too quiet of a writer for that. But there’s a lot to contemplate as clues keep coming and memories resurface. I’ve loved Harper’s other books, and I’ll eagerly wait for her next book, too.

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