The Lost Man by Jane Harper

Originally published in 2018.

Brothers Nathan and Bub Bright meet for the first time in months at the remote fence line separating their cattle ranches in the lonely outback. Their third brother, Cameron, lies dead at their feet. 

In an isolated belt of Australia, their homes a three-hour drive apart, the brothers were one another’s nearest neighbors. Cameron was the middle child, the one who ran the family homestead. But something made him head out alone under the unrelenting sun.

While [the family grieves] Cameron’s loss, suspicion starts to take hold, and Nathan is forced to examine secrets the family would rather leave in the past. Because if someone forced Cameron to his death, the isolation of the outback leaves few suspects.

Cameron Bright had been missing for several days when his body is finally found at the stockman’s grave, a remote spot miles from the road on the edge of his vast property. His two brothers, Bub and Nathan, can only assume that he was forced to abandon his vehicle but when they find it functional, full of fuel and a healthy stock of supplies almost ten kilometers away they cannot understand his behavior. Did he get lost walking his own property or was it an intentional decision to kill himself?

As the family prepares for the funeral, Nathan realizes that he may not have known his brother as well as he thought he did. As Nathan learns more about Cameron’s final days, he reflects on the reasons for their strained relationship and uncovers some family secrets. Secrets that may hold the answer to their questions about his death…

Perhaps the most striking aspect of The Lost Man is its setting – the remote and unforgiving Australian outback. Harper does a superb job of conveying the potential loneliness of that life and the difficulties it brings. In a short but very atmospheric prologue, we get a sense of just how isolated this cast of characters are – not only from the nearest settlement but from each other. We quickly learn that their isolation is not just physical but social as the brothers’ relationship with one another have been uneasy for years.

The horrific circumstances of Cameron’s death are also conveyed quite strikingly, setting up some difficult problems for the reader to solve. It is a seemingly incomprehensible death. If suicide was intended why choose to suffer for hours when he had firearms at home. If it was murder, why are there no signs of a struggle. The question of whether it is murder is only resolved in the final pages of the novel meaning that we are searching for a reason for an event without a certainty of what exactly it was.

Given a lack of material evidence our focus instead is drawn to the characters. Whether it was suicide or murder, it seems quite clear that the reason must lie in understanding Cameron, the state of his relationships with others and the events that led up to his death. This process unfolds quite slowly and in a seemingly unstructured way with details emerging in conversations or observations made from some of his personal effects rather than as the result of an investigative process. It feels quite natural and credible, though those who come to this primarily looking for detection may feel a little frustrated by that pacing.

The early chapters in particular seemed to me quite slow, perhaps because I had anticipated more of an investigative structure or maybe because I was slow to warm to Nathan whose perspective we follow. He seems initially quite cold and bitter, both in his response to the death but also in terms of the way he is living his life in near-total isolation. That is reflected in the way others frequently express their concern for his well-being, wondering if he might be drawn to end his life the way his brother seems to have done.

It was only once we began to explore his past in greater detail that I began to appreciate the subtleties of that character and their development. Events in the past and the present are layered together with Harper often introducing an idea and then flashing back (or jumping forward) to show how it connects. This helps suggest a sense of near-constant discovery as our understanding of these men grows with each reveal.

Smartly Harper does not rely on shock but each realization feels like a natural development from what we learned pages before. The result is not dissimilar to seeing a picture slowly coming into focus and I found it to be quite a compelling reading experience.

That is not to say that the overall plot is predictable. If you were to have asked me to guess at what the truth might be a few chapters into the novel, I am sure I would have anticipated very little of the actual solution. In fact there is one element of the solution that I didn’t come close to guessing and which provided the one really huge shock of the book. While the clueing of that aspect of the solution feels a little slight, I still found that reveal very satisfying and felt it tied things together very powerfully.

The Lost Man is an interesting and rich read that prioritizes careful character development and a sense of setting. Those who come to it hoping primarily to engage with it as a puzzle may find it a little too careful and deliberate in its pacing or struggle with the lack of a focused investigative structure. Those who appreciate the development of character and theme however will find that there is much to admire here.

The Verdict: An interesting read with strong characterization, striking setting and careful development of its themes.

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