The Dark Lake…
The lead homicide investigator in a rural town, Detective Sergeant Gemma Woodstock is deeply unnerved when a high school classmate is found strangled, her body floating in a lake. And not just any classmate, but Rosalind Ryan, whose beauty and inscrutability exerted a magnetic pull on Smithson High School, first during Rosalind’s student years and then again when she returned to teach drama.
As much as Rosalind’s life was a mystery to Gemma when they were students together, her death presents even more of a puzzle. What made Rosalind quit her teaching job in Sydney and return to her hometown? Why did she live in a small, run-down apartment when her father was one of the town’s richest men? And despite her many admirers, did anyone in the town truly know her?
Rosalind’s enigmas frustrate and obsess Gemma, who has her own dangerous secrets—an affair with her colleague and past tragedies that may not stay in the past.
The Dark Lake is so much more than a murder mystery. So much more than what I have come to expect from a crime novel. It’s an intricately layered story that begins long before the actual crime. It’s a sophisticated story that explores the darker side to being a depressed teenager, to being a motherless girl growing up in a household of males, of mistaken guilt, unchecked grief, and all-consuming passion. It’s utterly brilliant and held me captivated for all 430 pages. Crime fiction has a new voice and her name is Sarah Bailey.
I felt from the start that this story had a real ‘Twin Peaks‘ feel to it. Beautiful young woman found dead in the lake, roses strewn about her. As the story progressed, it didn’t lose this element for me. The deceased, Rosalind Ryan, just like Laura Palmer before her, was beautiful, and everyone was devastated by her murder. Until the surface was scratched and her true nature began to slowly surface. She may have been beautiful, but she was not the treasured member of the community we were at first led to believe; her manipulations ran deep and I liked the way we only discovered this bit by bit as time moved on. There was a point where I even wondered if we would ever know what happened to Rosalind. While this mystery drove the story, it was by no means the fuel and knowing ‘who did it’ almost became secondary to me, so invested in the other elements of the story had I become.
For the majority of the novel, we are experiencing the story from Gemma Woodstock’s perspective, one of the lead detectives on the case. She has a history with the victim, one far more complicated than she has let on. Gemma is also in the midst of a crisis within her personal life. She’s having an affair with her partner, has multiple accounts of unchecked grief hanging about her, drinks too much, and has a tendency to bury herself in her work. I absolutely loved her to bits. She didn’t always make the right choices, but I always found myself on her side. Sarah Bailey has done a convincing job at highlighting the difficulties detectives must face when in the midst of a high profile case, straddling that line between work and home, never being able to switch off. In Gemma’s case, unresolved issues from 10 years previous were proving to be her undoing, making this case far more personal than it needed to be. I enjoyed the pace at which this history was revealed. I don’t like to wait until the very end to find out everything in a rush of five pages so I was relieved as Sarah took a different approach, holding out and letting us in bit by bit, but not stringing all of the mysteries out for too long. A happy medium!
Occasionally, we were given a little view from someone else, usually an incidental character, yet one who had something significant to reveal, even if they didn’t know it themselves. These alternate views were offered at pivotal moments and they were most cleverly crafted. Often times, it wasn’t until a bit later on that we even realised the significance of the clue we had been offered. Through dialogue, we were also exposed to just how affected by the investigation, combined with her spiralling personal life, that Gemma had become. She couldn’t see that, and given we were within her perspective, it was only through these scenes of dialogue that we could get a true sense of this, and again, Sarah masterfully handled this aspect of the story. It is no easy feat, creating an authentic female detective. All too often they can come across as too hard, too impersonal, as trying too much. I felt Gemma was well balanced, passionate about her job, yet also aware that she was very good at it. She was not immune to its effects, yet this didn’t compromise her normally. It was only the very personal nature of this particular case, combined with her past, that was proving to be her undoing in this instance, a factor she was well aware of, even if she wasn’t entirely in the loop with how erratic her behaviour had become. Her obsession with her partner magnified the elements of the case, and along with the relentless heat, and I felt these two aspects acted as catalysts for Gemma. They pushed her along, peaked her anxiety. This was also very well done.
I felt no satisfaction at the end of Dark Lake, only sadness, and in this it mirrored real life. A murder is never neat, simple, or straightforward. So many elements tangled together to bring this one about, the motivations so deep and long held that it was never going to end well for any of those involved. I will say here that I never guessed ‘who did it’ until pretty much when it was revealed, but I’m rather rubbish at guessing that sort of thing. I’d make a terrible detective! Even so, I still think this was an ‘un-obvious’ crime story. It was very well done in my opinion, and yes, I’m aware I’ve said that more than once now. But it was! More savvy and well-read crime aficionados may disagree, but that’s fair enough if you’re a hard core reader of crime, which I am not.
Dark Lake was my bookclub pick for June and I’m really looking forward to seeing what the other bookclubbers thought. It has plenty within its pages for discussion, so if you’re looking for a recommendation, I am giving this one the thumbs up.
I did have a favourite line, as is my custom to share, and it was one towards the end, within a scene between Scott and Gemma, the ruins of their relationship strewn about them.
We are like alkaline levels in a pool, both trying to keep the waters safe. Neutral enough that we can bob past each other without turning toxic.
How great is that line?
Dark Lake is book 40 in my 2017 Australian Women Writers Challenge. And on that note, I’m a little shocked and incredibly delighted that I’ve already read 40 books written by Australian women so far this year. Here’s to the next 40!