Force of Nature (2017), a crime thriller by British-Australian author Jane Harper, follows Federal Financial Crimes Investigator Aaron Falk (the protagonist of Harper’s lauded debut, The Dry) as he searches for Alice Russell, a corporate whistleblower who has gone missing during a company retreat in the bush. Critics hailed Force of Nature as “a spooky, compelling read” (Kirkus Reviews).
The novel opens with a prologue. Four women, all executives at the accountancy firm BaileyTennants, emerge from the bushland of the Giralang Mountains. One of the women, Bree, has been bitten by a snake, but there’s a more urgent problem: Their colleague Alice Russell is missing.
Aaron Falk is still at home recovering from the psychic and physical scars of his last case when he receives a call from his new partner, Carmen Cooper. She informs him of Alice Russell’s disappearance, and we learn that Alice had been helping Carmen and Falk to investigate BaileyTennants’ CEO, Daniel Bailey, whom they suspect of running a money-laundering operation.
Two details make it especially urgent for Falk and Carmen to look into her disappearance. First, the trip to the Giralang mountains was a company retreat: both Bailey and his sister—Alice’s immediate superior—were present. Second, just hours before she was last seen, Alice called Falk and left a garbled message.
On their way down to the Giralang Ranges, Falk remembers his last visit to the region 25 years ago, in pursuit of serial killer Martin Kovac.
From this point forward, the novel alternates between two timelines: In the present, Falk and Carmen investigate Alice’s disappearance, while in the past, we follow each of the women through the company retreat.
The retreat begins on a Thursday afternoon. The employees are split into two groups, men and women, and set out on different routes through the mountains. However, on Thursday night, the men surprise the women at their campsite, and a night of heavy drinking ensues. Daniel Bailey takes the opportunity to pull Alice aside: The other women witness a tense conversation. That night, Alice tries to call her daughter, but her phone (which she wasn’t supposed to have brought) will not work. She returns to the campsite and tries to persuade
her boss, Jill Bailey (Daniel’s sister) to let her go home, but Jill refuses.
On Friday morning, Jill’s assistant, Bree, is put in charge of navigating, but tired and hungover, she leads the group astray. They try to find a shortcut back to their route and end up even more lost. Crossing a river, they lose their tent poles and their gas supply. That night they are forced to sleep on the ground, unfed.
Tempers begin to fray. Sick of the smell of her colleague Beth’s cigarettes, Alice snatches away the pack and throws it into the bush. Searching for them, Beth—who is Bree’s twin sister—discovers a cabin once inhabited by the serial killer Martin Kovak.
Alice tries to persuade the group to push on, but Jill overrules her; they will stay put and wait for help.
Back in the present moment, Carmen and Falk return to Melbourne to interview Daniel Bailey. They ask him what his tense conversation with Alice had been about. Bailey explains that his son had posted nude photos of Alice’s daughter Margot on the Internet.
Falk and Carmen talk to Margot, who is hiding from her father at Alice’s house. They arrange for Margot to stay with Lauren, one of the women from the retreat, whose daughter Rebecca suffers from an eating disorder brought on by bullying.
During the investigation, Falk and Carmen—who is engaged—have grown close, and overnight in Melbourne, they enjoy a dinner together that borders on romantic. Their evening is interrupted by a phone call; the mountain rescue team has come across the cabin where the women waited to be found.
The narrative returns to the retreat. Alice initially agrees to wait with the others, and they have a pleasant evening around the fire. As they go to bed, Alice announces that in the morning she intends to press on without them, taking with her the group’s only phone. A physical struggle breaks out, and Jill seizes Alice’s phone. However, in the night, Alice steals the phone again and sets out into the bush—followed by someone unidentified.
Falk and Carmen visit the scene of this episode, but while they are there, they learn that the local police have found Alice’s body. A tree next to the body is home to a snake of the species that bit Bree, so Falk and Carmen bring Bree in for questioning. Bree admits to finding the body and hiding it. She suspected her sister Beth of killing Alice in retaliation for Alice’s long-term bullying.
Returning to the past, we learn that the woman following Alice in the night is Lauren, who tries to prevent Alice from taking the phone. The argument quickly turns nasty due to the existing tensions between the two women: Alice bullies Lauren at work, and worse, Alice’s daughter, Margot, is the bully responsible for the eating disorder suffered by Lauren’s daughter Rebecca.
As the two women fight, Alice falls and hits her head. Although dazed, Alice is conscious, so Lauren leaves her and returns to the camp, leaving the phone with Alice. Later, woken by Bree’s snakebitten screams, Lauren notes that Alice is not where she left her and assumes that Alice has left under her own steam.
In the present day, Falk and Carmen discover Lauren’s bracelet caught in the zipper of Alice’s jacket, and they realize that Lauren is the murderer. Meanwhile, however, Lauren, overwhelmed by guilt, has driven to a nearby waterfall, intending to kill herself. Falk arrives in time to stall her, but when Carmen arrives with backup, Lauren jumps. Falk follows her in and brings her alive to the shore. Carmen pulls Falk from the water and kisses him.