‘The thing I’m really interested isn’t the crime, it’s more the ripple effects’

Since the success of her CWA Gold Dagger winning debut The Dry in 2017, each of Jane Harper’s novels has been both critically acclaimed and an international bestseller; the latest, The Survivors, shows no falling off in quality. A suspenseful plot, a vivid sense of place and a satisfyingly ambiguous ending have become identifiable elements of Harper’s repertoire, and they are on display here to compelling effect.

But it is her preoccupation with the slings and arrows, the errors and omissions of adolescence that gives the books their extraordinary emotional force: the boyfriends betrayed, the friends abandoned, the parents rejected. Harper writes with a nuanced, compassionate eye of how those turbulent teenage dramas seem laid to rest, only to resurface in later life, harbingers of crisis, sources of shame; she repeatedly dramatises William Faulkner’s much-quoted line: “The past is not dead. It’s not even past”.

It’s perhaps not surprising that this should be so; Harper was born in Manchester, moved to Australia when she was eight, then returned to England aged 14. She emigrated to Melbourne when she was 28, where she now lives with her family. We spoke (via Zoom) before Christmas, and after congratulating her on Australia’s enviable Covid-free status, I asked first about her early life, and about her particular outsider’s perspective (not unheard of in crime fiction: the great Californian crime novelists all came from elsewhere, while Harper’s illustrious predecessor Peter Temple was South African).

“I moved back to the UK when I was 14, then I switched schools again when I was 16 to do my A levels. And I do remember having to read the room, you know, in a room full of teenagers, trying to work out what was going on in terms of social circles and loyalties. And reading that undercurrent is something I still do.

“And that question as well about the sort of things you did as a teenager, I think we can look back at our teenage years and think, with relationships at school, and the way you treated friends, and the way you spoke to our parents. Should you feel guilty about that? But at the time that was the culture. And that was what you thought was the appropriate behaviour. You wouldn’t do that again. But you’re not the same person, now, as you were then.

Setting is something I think about really early, because I want the setting to inform the plot, not just be a backdrop

“When I lived out here when I was younger, it was only six years, but it was six very formative years, you know, a lot of my childhood memories and experiences linked with growing up are very connected with Australia. And then when I moved back when I was 28 it was interesting to see how accurate or otherwise those memories were. And I think that was really what made me, when it came to writing novels, be able to focus on those differences that make Australia what it is, you know, everything from the landscape to the weather, what people talk about in an office setting and the pub and what’s on the news and all those sort of little things that, having had that time away, really drew them into sharp focus when I returned.”

Was she ever tempted to set her work in England?

“I think a few different things came into play: one that I was living out here in Australia. So I was immersed in the culture and, you know, if I wanted to imagine what the landscape looks like I could actually go and look at it, I could hear the dialogue and I could see the weather patterns.