The Dark Lake
Sarah Bailey
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Buy *The Dark Lake (Gemma Woodstock)* by Sarah Baileyonline

The Dark Lake (Gemma Woodstock)
Sarah Bailey
Grand Central Publishing
400 pages
October 2017
rated 4 1/2 of 5 possible stars

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Although Bailey stretches credulity a bit, the author mostly delivers a knockout blow, encompassing everything the reader would want from a solid crime drama. Set in Smithson, a small town set deep in the New South Wales hinterland, The Dark Lake is tinged with the dark drama of Shakespeare. Bailey cleverly builds her suspects up as a killer haunts the grounds of Smithson Secondary College. Rosalind Ryan, the college’s English teacher, has been murdered, her body found in the deep waters of Sonny Lake. Unfolding from the dramatic first-person perspective of DS Gemma Woodstock, The Dark Lake is a mad circle of secrets that threaten to derail the life of well-meaning Gemma.

As Gemma looks down at the steel autopsy table and sees Rosalind’s long damp hair hanging off the back, she knows that Rosalind’s death could ultimately undo her and pull her back into a world haunted by young Jacob, a mutual former boyfriend. Assigned as chief officer in the investigation by her boss Jonesy, Gemma attempts to focus on the case at hand but is distracted by Felix, her new colleague who has recently arrived from England. Nothing appears normal. Gemma feels separate from her body and disconnected from her current boyfriend, Scott. She’s also exhausted from the demands of mothering Ben, her young son.

With images of dead Rosalind tunneling through her psyche, Gemma recalls flashes of her face in the schoolyard, the glimpses of her creamy skin and large, knowing eyes. There are few clues in the case apart from long-stemmed red roses floating all around Rosalind’s body in the water. George Ryan, Rosalind’s father, is shocked to learn that his daughter died late at night, just after the premier of her beloved school play, a modern retelling of Romeo and Juliet. George can shed little light on the fate of his daughter other than telling Gemma and Felix that Rosalind could be difficult; she spoke her mind, which some people might have found challenging.

Alex’s suspicions are aroused. Rosalind’s three older brothers, Marcus, Bryce and Timothy, act like “strange cardboard cutouts,” an odd stiffness to their grief. While Alex wants to run background on all of them ASAP, Gemma remains mostly stymied by a case where nothing adds up. Rosalind was in good spirits on the opening night of her school production. It appears that the aura of mystery she carried in high school extended into her adulthood. No one knows anything about a boyfriend or a lover. From a missed call to a blocked number, the clues point toward someone constantly watching Rosalind. Maybe she had a stalker; it was almost certainly something to do with the school. Everyone, including Smithson’s students and teachers, were love-struck--even John Nicholson, “the boring as watching paint dry principal” who was always staring at Rosalind and prompting “her silly plays.”

Bailey moves back and forth, unfolding Gemma’s internal life: the grief that swarms around her and her father never allowing her a normal parent-child relationship. Bailey also focuses on the effects of Rosalind’s death on the inhabitants of Smithson. Was the perpetrator a spurned lover or a random stranger? This still doesn’t explain why Rosalind was at the lake in the first place. Nothing about her life seemed random. Rosalind’s death has formed a blanket over Smithson, mixing with the relentless heat: “a creeping vapor-like cover that sticks to everything.” Eyes dart around as if seeking a killer in the shadows while people pile on flowers in “little mountains of love and grief” at Rosalind’s front door, the lake, and the school.

Although Gemma’s story is the main feature of the book, we see various other characters express their voices--particularly Jonesy who realizes the investigation may be far more complicated than he first thought. Gemma’s backstory is told in flashback, a glimpse of a life beyond school and “the black hole" that dominated much of her life after Jacob left her forever. We also follow loyal Scott, who desperately wants to make a commitment to Gemma. Bailey tumbles us into Gemma’s home life, focusing on her sudden miscarriage and how she yearns to be a good mum. Ben changed things: “I held him close at night, and blinked away the thoughts that had me dying at gunpoint and leaving him all alone.” Gemma is blindsided by Felix, whose arrival in Smithson sends everything that Gemma thought she wanted flying out the window.

While the identity of Rose’s killer keeps us turning the pages, the book's core is Bailey’s passionate exploration of Gemma’s profound restlessness. For the moment, at least, Gemma’s desire for Felix is the fire of her life. Whether shrouded in Rosalind’s past or in Gemma’s layers of memories, Bailey writes a solid, uniquely Australian thriller about the emotional emptiness of a secret life in the face of a schoolboy’s foolish adolescent love.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Michael Leonard, 2017

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