“I want people to think, ‘I know someone like that,’” Harper said. “I figure out what keeps people awake at night and what drives them to get out of bed in the morning, and that involves a lot of details that don’t make it into the books.” Characters’ coffee preferences, for instance: “Aaron Falk is from Melbourne so he’d probably be a flat-white man,” she said, using a term for steamed milk poured over espresso. “And Nathan” — a divorced dad who solves the death of his brother in “The Lost Man” — “he’d be instant coffee, happy to drink it black but with a splash of long-life milk on occasion.” (Harper, whose parents are British and who spent much of her childhood in England, is “more of a tea person.”)
Nathan drinks long-life milk in part because he lives hundreds of miles from the nearest town, on a remote cattle station in the northern Australian state of Queensland. Harper leans on the Australian environment in all of her novels. “The Lost Man,” like “The Dry,” is a study in isolation and its psychological and physical effects — particularly on men, who in regional areas of Australia are vulnerable to depression and suicide. “Setting informs plot,” is how Harper put it, when asked about her skill in conjuring up a familiar type of Australian bloke, at once taciturn and tender.
Where “The Dry” probed the dangers of prolonged drought on a close-knit farming community, “The Lost Man” is concerned with how people live — and die — in the unforgiving outback. The novel opens in the desert, with the discovery of Nathan’s brother’s body five miles from his four-wheel-drive vehicle and the food, fuel and water in its trunk. What happened to separate Nathan’s brother from his survival kit?
“I knew I wanted somewhere hot and far-flung, but with a community of sorts,” Harper said of her choice of location. As part of her planning, she flew to Charleville, some 400 miles west of the Queensland capital of Brisbane, and then drove more than 500 miles further to the tiny town of Birdsville, on the edge of the Simpson Desert. The town’s claim to fame is hitting the highest-ever temperature in Queensland, of 49.5 degrees Celsius (121.1 degrees Fahrenheit). Now it’s the town that served as inspiration for “The Lost Man.”
Accompanying Harper on her journey was Neale McShane, the officer in charge of Birdsville Police Station for 10 years, who is now retired. McShane, by himself, once patrolled an area of outback the size of the United Kingdom, with a population of about 250 people.