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28 Mar 2018

Disappearing Acts: A Shelf of Missing-Person Mysteries

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Will corporations never learn that sending their executives on wilderness retreats won’t boost their leadership skills and might even unleash “something base and elemental and almost primitive,” as Jane Harper puts it in FORCE OF NATURE (Flatiron, $25.99)? That’s what happens when five female employees of a chic little firm of accountants in Melbourne, Australia, go on a team-building hike in the rugged bush and come back one executive short. The missing soul, Alice Russell, is an argumentative bully (“Alice could start a fight in an empty room,” one colleague recalls), and her teammates must heroically resist the temptation to leave her stranded.

Harper, who likes to toy with plotting, uses dual chronologies here, one in real time and the other in bush time, encouraging tensions to build until the restraints of civilization snap, giving way to bare-knuckle fights and worse. Some of this savagery can be blamed on the punishing environment, a menacing landscape of rain-soaked woodland and snake-infested underbrush, with a raging river down below.

To make this hike from hell even more unnerving, a storm forces the women to take cover in a cabin with a grisly connection to a serial killer. The man is dead, but his son is still alive. This only adds to the tensions that already exist in the group, which includes squabbling twins, a secret informant and not one but two mothers whose daughters are being cyber-bullied.

All of the novel’s characters have been drawn with exceptional complexity, and none more so than Aaron Falk, the federal agent investigating the case who fears that Alice’s undercover work delving into her firm’s dodgy financial practices may have been discovered. So much more than a conventional detective, the reflective and compassionate Falk provides the book’s moral compass. He respects the forces of nature and heeds the messages his father jotted down on his hiking maps: “Not safe in winter. Take care. … Tread carefully. Danger here.”

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