Sarah Bailey is one of my favourite Australian novelists. I’m a fan of her Gemma Woodstock series which may – or may not – have ended after the third instalment last year. She seems to also be a generous person and happily answered questions for a piece I was writing for my Masters last year (about how / when crime writers decide to end a series).
At the time she was focussed on a new novel, The Housemate, released today in Australia. Again she offers up a likeable but flawed female lead and bounces her off several strong personalities that bring out the best, and worst, in her. I know the whole journey analogy is wanky but I very much liked the journey (well, personal development arc!) Bailey takes our lead, Olive (Oli), on here and the way it complements the unfolding mystery.The Housemate
by Sarah Bailey
Published by Allen & Unwin AU
Source: Allen & Unwin
Genres: Crime Fiction, Thriller / Suspense
Dubbed the Housemate Homicide, it's a mystery that has baffled Australians for almost a decade.
Melbourne-based journalist Olive Groves worked on the story as a junior reporter and became obsessed by the case. Now, nine years later, the missing housemate turns up dead on a remote property. Oli is once again assigned to the story, this time reluctantly paired with precocious millennial podcaster Cooper Ng.
As Oli and Cooper unearth new facts about the three housemates, a dark web of secrets is uncovered. The revelations catapult Oli back to the death of the first housemate, forcing her to confront past traumas and insecurities that have risen to the surface again.
What really happened between the three housemates that night? Will Oli's relentless search for the murderer put her new family in danger? And could her suspicion that the truth lies closer to home threaten her happiness and even her sanity?
The book opens with a hungover and possibly still high Oli rocking up to the scene of a murder in 2005. It’s a case she wouldn’t normally cover but her boss is away so she’s determined to do a good job.
Bailey limits our initial exposure to that case and then moves forward ten years.
In the present (well, 2015) Oli is a senior journalist at the fictional Melbourne Today grappling with the changing world of online news and media. She refers to herself as a print journalist and happy to lodge stories for online consumption but suspicious about new technology and well… non-journalists.
When the ‘Housemate Homicide’ again rears its ugly head Oli is a natural choice for the newspaper’s gig. Of course being teamed up with Cooper is a bit galling for the now-seasoned journalist. Unfortunately he’s quintessentially millennial-ish in his disdain for old-school stuff and his complete inability to read the behaviour of those around him. He’s also surprisingly ambitious and I wondered if Oli needed to worry more about him and less about the ongoing competitiveness with another of her colleagues.
I’d hoped to like Cooper more than I did but I should mention his arrogance is matched by Oli’s patronising attitude towards him. And though she realises she’s coming across as a bitch she struggles to rein in her behaviour.
I loved the insight Bailey provides into investigative journalism here. The way Oli’s going through old notebooks and contacts to track down family and friends to re-interview; the way the newspaper has people who spend their time checking and gathering facts; and the way editorial content is managed in a very curated way – with Oli’s boss deciding what stories they’ll feature and what will be deemed ‘less newsworthy’.
I really really liked Oli. Bailey’s development of her character and her interactions with those around her was certainly the strength of this novel for me. This is promoted as a standalone, but I’d love to meet her again.
I would have liked a little more information about Oli’s family backstory. It’s referenced but perhaps was too oblique for me, as I didn’t quite understand the baggage she carries with her (still) as a result. There are also linkages between the case and Oli’s personal life – the past and present again colliding. I appreciated that the tension around this element augments, but doesn’t overpower, the main narrative.
We’re also taken back in time by one of the housemates, Alex, to around the time of the murder and then subsequent investigation and trial.
I found myself a little disappointed, or perhaps dejected (!) when we learn the truth about the murder and the way things have panned out for those involved since. I’m not sure if that reflects the fact I didn’t believe the characters capable of (what happens); or that I was just bloody disappointed in human nature. Again.
Either way, this is certainly a gripping read and Bailey throws in many (many) surprises. It also offers some commentary on journalism, news and popular culture today which is certainly worth the discourse.
The Housemate by Sarah Bailey was published in Australia by Allen and Unwin and available from late August 2021.
I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes.