With Force of NatureJane Harper solidifies her reputation as a mystery writer for whom Nature should always be capitalized as Nature itself is a main character. In The Dry, the heat and drought were critical elements of the story. In this second in her Aaron Falk series, this times it is the claustrophobic, cold, and damp mountain forest that closes in on a group of women, lost in a wilderness adventure where five go in and four come out. Alice, they say, fought with them and took off before they woke up that morning, they are surprised she is not there already.

Aaron and his partner Carmen are alarmed. The missing woman was turning state’s evidence under pressure from them. Did they put her in danger? She could just be lost, then again, there was an infamous serial killer whose son is believed to be in the area, she could have had an accident, or perhaps her cooperation with Financial Crimes was discovered and she was murdered.

The story is told in two alternating narratives. The search and investigation for the missing Alice that begins on Sunday when the women come back without Alice and the women’s trek beginning on Friday. There’s a “Lord of the Flies” breakdown of civility and mores as the women get hungry, cold, and frightened. Alice is an annoying, bossy, and impatient woman who plucks every last cold, hungry, desperate nerve.

This is a good mystery. It is fair and Harper succeeds in creating a sense of place that effectively drives the action and mood. You can see the women disintegrating, losing patience, tolerance, and control. You can feel the menace, the snap of a twig, the looming shadows, the neverending rain building up animosities, the sense of being watched creating rising fear.

The investigation part of the story is less compelling. In part, this is because Aaron and Carmen don’t even know if there is something to investigate. There’s not really much they can do, though they ask questions and try to learn what happened on the trek, but mainly they are spinning their wheels.

Another strong component of Harper’s writing is the complexity of her characters. Each of the five women is fully-realized, complex people with multiple motivations and concerns. Their story is as much driven by character as nature. The women’s narrative is the strongest compensating for the weaker investigation narrative.

I received an Advance Reading Copy of Force of Nature from the publisher through a drawing at Shelf Awareness.