Cover image of "The Dark Lake" by Sarah Bailey, an excellent Australian thriller

Sarah Bailey‘s excellent Australian thriller, The Dark Lake, explores the power of guilt and the allure of beauty in a suspenseful tale of murder and long-suppressed secrets. “‘Everyone in this town has something to hide,'” as one character observes. The plot revolves around those festering secrets.

Smithson is a town of 30,000 in the Australian outback, “a good four-hour drive from Sydney.” There, a 28-year-old high school teacher named Rosalind (Rose) Ryan has been found murdered and possibly raped as well. She was discovered floating in Smithson Lake, red roses strewn across her body. An old school classmate of hers, Detective Sergeant Gemma Woodstock has been assigned to the investigation along with her partner and secret lover, Detective Sergeant Felix McKinnon. Gemma’s 10-year-old connections to Rose run deep. She manages to stay on the case only by downplaying them. Her boss is willing to allow Gemma to head the investigation because he regards her as his best detective—his protege, in a way.

Rose is an enigmatic figure, a woman of great beauty and hidden desires. She is the daughter of the town’s richest man, a developer, and sister to three older brothers. Unlike her brothers, Rose avoids the family’s palatial home. She lives alone in a small cottage in a run-down neighborhood. Rumors swirl about Rose—that she was having an affair with the high school principal, that she was sleeping with one of her students, that something terrible happened to her on a previous teaching job in Sydney.

The Dark Lake by Sarah Bailey ★★★★☆

Men find Gemma attractive, too, but she compares herself unfavorably to Rose. And a minor character observes that “Gemma looks like a bargain basement mannequin.” She has a boyish figure, and she’s careless about what she wears.

Guilt over some unspecified sin in her teen years has driven Gemma to join the police. “‘I didn’t really have another choice,’ she explains to Felix. ‘I needed so badly to work in a world that made binary sense of things. A place where there was good and bad, right and wrong, and where I was in charge of making sure there was more good than bad.'”

The Dark Lake unfolds in chapters that alternate between the present time with Gemma and Rose’s final year at Smithson High School ten years earlier. At first, the connections between the two lines of the plot appear to be incidental. Gradually, as Gemma digs more deeply into her memory, we find the fateful connections that lead to an explosive ending.

I recently reviewed another strong murder mystery from Australia, The Dry by Jane Harper. You’ll find its review at Multiple murder in the Australian outback.

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