Mystery of the Month – The Dark Lake

It’s a sweltering summer in the town of Smithson when popular schoolteacher, Rosalind Ryan, is found dead in the lake. Detective Sergeant Gemma Woodstock remembers Rosalind from high school, but is unwilling to divulge just how well she knew her. One thing is for sure – this murder will dredge up memories from a past summer Gemma has tried in vain to forget.

I was hooked after reading the first few pages of The Dark Lake using the ‘Look Inside’ feature on Amazon and immediately purchased the novel. It’s hard to believe this is the debut novel from Sarah Bailey as she writes like a seasoned author. She has turned the ‘small town, big secrets’ trope into a fresh and original story, due largely to her resilient yet fallible main character, Gemma.

Raised by her father after her mother’s death, Gemma now dotes on her little boy, Ben. She has an uneasy relationship with Ben’s father, Scott, who loves her and wants to marry her – but Gemma is too busy engaging in secret rendezvous with her partner, Felix, a married man with three daughters. An astute and driven detective, Gemma is no stranger to grisly scenes, having proved her worth early in her career when she uncovered a serial killer. However, Gemma is unsettled by the death of Rosalind, the enigmatic ‘Disney princess beauty’ who has always been lurking in the depths of her memory.

As Gemma and Felix work to find Rosalind’s killer, they interview her wealthy father, three older brothers, and Smithson High’s principal, who definitely has something to hide. Then there are Rosalind’s adoring students, many of whom were in the vicinity of the lake on the night she died after participating in a modern version of Romeo and Juliet, which Rosalind wrote and produced. Felix suspects Rodney – the play’s ‘Romeo’ – but Gemma is not convinced. Could it be because Rodney is the younger brother and spitting image of Gemma’s first love, Jacob?

The mystery poses intriguing questions about Rosalind’s parentage, her reputation with her younger male students and her reclusive lifestyle in a ‘modest cottage’ on the highway, where the walls are covered with movie posters. Links between characters are slowly revealed, with devastating consequences. Gemma doggedly pursues the killer, despite the many hurdles she encounters on the way, including suffering the pain of a miscarriage early in the novel, receiving ominous threats and navigating her tumultuous relationships with Felix and Scott. She’s got a tough exterior, but also demonstrates moments of great vulnerability as she laments past mistakes still weighing on her conscience, and makes questionable choices.

The Dark Lake is the page-turner I was hoping Paula Hawkins’ Into the Water would be. The narrative deftly weaves between the present day investigations into Rosalind’s death and key moments from Gemma’s past involving her relationship with Jacob. The present tense writing style and occasional changes in POV creates a sense of movement and increases the suspense, as does a gripping scene where Gemma is faced with a mother’s worst nightmare. The solution to the mystery is tangled up in illicit student/teacher relationships, adultery, family values, guilt and the power of a parent’s love.

Rounding out the cast of characters is Chief Superintendent Ken ‘Jonesy’ Jones who has a soft spot for Gemma, pushy ‘pocket-rocket reporter’ Candy Fyfe, sunny forensic pathologist Anna, and Gemma’s caring father – all of whom will hopefully become series regulars as Sarah Bailey is currently penning the follow-up novel.

The Dark Lake by Sarah Bailey is published by Allen & Unwin.

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