The compulsion to write

Sarah Bailey wanted to have a book published by the age of 35, which has developed into one of the best and most compelling crime thriller series with a flawed, memorable, determined and distinctive young protagonist, Detective Sergeant Gemma Woodstock, writes Bron Sibree

26 May 2024 - 00:00
By Bron Sibree
Sarah Bailey.
Image: Hugh Davies Sarah Bailey.

Body of Lies *****
Sarah Bailey
Allen & Unwin

Even as her fifth crime novel Body of Lies hits the international bookshelf to critical acclaim, Sarah Bailey thinks in some ways she’s “an accidental crime writer”. Albeit an astonishingly successful one, with a devoted international readership and not just one, but two of her novels now in development for TV series, including her 2021 stand-alone, The Housemate. The Australian-born, Melbourne-based author attributes her success to a “happy accident,” but concedes that even now, seven years after the runaway success of her debut novel, The Dark Lake, her compulsion to write remains a driving force in her life.I find myself always wanting to have a story on the go. And as for getting stuck on any scene, or anything resembling writers block, I just don’t have time for it.”

Bailey, who manages an advertising agency and is the mother of three sons, including a 10-month-old, was 33 when she set herself a goal of having a book published by the time she was 35. “I didn’t intend to write crime, or wasn’t doing it consciously,” recalls Bailey. “I had not even thought about how it was to be categorised if it ever ended up being published. On some level I knew I’d written a murder mystery but I didn’t know anyone in the publishing world or its language. I was lucky with The Dark Lake that I was able to get an agent quickly.”

Her agent soon set her straight on genre categorisation and her 2017 debut, The Dark Lake, published the day after her 35th birthday, won both the 2018 Davitt Award and the 2018 Ned Kelly Award for Best First Crime — Australia’s most prestigious crime writing prize — and was published in 15 territories worldwide. A police procedural, The Dark Lake garnered lavish praise across three continents for both its convincing plot and deft characterisation, particularly Bailey’s portrayal of its flawed young protagonist, Detective Sergeant Gemma Woodstock. It also secured her a devoted readership and a new book deal, and has since been optioned for a TV series, says Bailey, “so it put me in a direction that I haven’t, so far, strayed away from”.

Body of Lies by Sarah Bailey.
Image: Supplied Body of Lies by Sarah Bailey.

Like the previous books in the series, including Into the Night (2018) and Where the Dead Go (2019), Body of Lies can also be read as a stand-alone. It finds Gemma Woodstock back in her hometown of Smithson on maternity leave. She is visiting her father in the local hospital when the body of a car accident victim is stolen from the hospital morgue and, with baby in tow, elbows her way into the investigation — much to the irritation of the detective in charge, DS Julian Everett. But due to staff shortages, Chief Inspector Jones, her old mentor “Jonesy”, allows her to investigate in parallel to the official team. When a baby is found by the lake, in this novel that Bailey hints maybe the final in the series, there’s a potent sense of coming full circle as Woodstock is forced to confront the murder scene of The Dark Lake.

It’s difficult to think of a novel with a more complex and deeply layered plot than Body of Lies — or one with more twists and secrets. Everyone in this fast-paced novel is hiding something including Woodstock’s partner, Mac. Yet Bailey insists that she is “completely incapable of being able to plot a novel in advance,” and describes herself as a largely instinctive writer. “I do occasionally worry that it’s not going to work out, but that just seems to be the only way I can do it.” Indeed the entire novel, which also probes science and institutional power, grew out of her thinking: “What if a body was stolen? That straight away asks so many questions.”

Not that Bailey was conscious she was exploring such issues she says, “until it became apparent. Normally about three quarters or halfway way through my books, I'll step back and think about how an issue has bubbled up. And they’re often issues that are part of the discourse at the time. So I agree with the sentiment that crime genre is a Trojan horse almost, which allows the reader to explore concerns and issues that humans are grappling with.”

She’s at a loss, too, to comprehend how she conceived of her fictional protagonist. “Gemma just thundered into my consciousness fully formed, in 2016. It was strange. I don’t know how to explain it except for I’d already had the premise of The Dark Lake this idea of a regional country town that was going through a change and this high-school teacher being found dead the morning after a play at the school. And I kept thinking, what if the local police officer who investigated the case knew this person?”

While her fellow award-winning crime novelist, Chris Hammer, calls Gemma Woodstock his favourite detective, Bailey maintains her protagonist, “is a good person, a good cop and on the right side of the moralistic line, but that doesn’t mean that she’s not annoying. Readers have said to me: ‘sometimes she just drives me crazy,’ but that’s good, you want characters that are memorable and distinctive and that every now and again surprise you. The books cover 10 years of her fictional life, so she’s grown up a bit as well.”

Already halfway through a sequel to her 2021 stand-alone, The Housemate, which features investigative journalist Olive Groves, and is in development for a TV series, Bailey admits to having an entire bank of story ideas struggling for landing rights. Ideas that may not always sustain a full-length novel, yet, she says, “they all get slotted in when it makes sense to fit them in. Once an idea is circling in my mind and I can’t stop thinking about it, that tends to make me feel it’s worthy of a book. But I don’t know where all these ideas come from.” Which is why she cannot be absolutely certain if Gemma Woodstock will reappear, or not. “Or maybe someone else will come along and she’ll be in the periphery,” she adds. “I’m open to that.”

The Godfather by Mario Puzo.
Image: Supplied The Godfather by Mario Puzo.

Sarah Bailey on the books that have influenced her

The Godfather by Mario Puzo. I read this when I was about 9 or 10, probably too young would be a fair way to call it. My parents were quite strict about lots of things, but books you could read whatever you like — they weren’t going to sanction the bookshelf. It was obviously dark and I probably didn’t understand all of it, but I just thought “Oh wow, you can have a movie in your mind, you can read and it just can open up this entire world,” which felt magical. I was absolutely captivated. I have this vivid memory of rushing through three weeks of life activities because I just wanted to go back to my room and read this book.

Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery. I read the whole series when I was very young. My grandmother would read it to me, my mum would read it to me, and I would read it. I think that character is one of the great creations of literature, so that will always have a little place in my heart. The character is so vivid, and I’ve obviously ended up growing up and writing about a very strong protagonist that reappears. I think Anne of Green Gables maybe on some subconscious level just showed me how you can follow a story, follow a person and see them progress. In Anne’s case grow up from a 10-year-old orphan through to having her own family and offshoots of other stories.

Postmortem by Patricia Cornwell.
Image: Supplied Postmortem by Patricia Cornwell.

Postmortem by Patricia Cornwell. I got stuck into all of Cornwell’s books when I was a bit older, but that first book, Postmortem, I read when we were on a family holiday. I had never read such a detailed forensic — literally forensic — unpacking of crime scenes and cases and mysteries. I didn’t love all of the books in the series, it lost me about eight books in, but those first six to eight books are so well crafted and amazingly structured. I remember sitting in the back seat of the car thinking, “Wow, this is so clever, that you can make a book so complicated, but still so easy to read.” Again it had another character, Kay Scarpetta, who continued and was very distinctive. She grew and her friends and family grew around her. I read Postmortem again not long ago and I think it still stands up as a really strong crime novel, compelling and interesting.

Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel. I read it in April or May 2020, a couple of months into the pandemic, but it was actually written in 2014, and it is about a pandemic. It’s truly creepy in terms of its prescience. I could not believe she’d written it pre-pandemic it’s amazing. In Station Eleven the pandemic is much more severe than Covid-19 was: the whole world shuts down and most people are killed so it’s a very dark, dystopian novel. But it is actually about the triumph of art, and the way, no matter what humans endure, they will find a way to tell stories, to make art, and to persevere even in tragic desolate times. It is really clever, it’s told across multiple time lines, and it’s very original, an absolute masterpiece of a book. I found it very inspiring and very moving. I was sitting at home with the kids at the time wondering what was going to happen and reading that book made me feel not less alone — that no matter what happens, it will be OK.

The Secret History by Donna Tartt.
Image: Supplied The Secret History by Donna Tartt.

The Secret History by Donna Tartt. I was in my early 20s when I read it, a perfect age because I think it’s quite indulgent and works better when you are younger. It made me realise how a mystery book can be completely unconventional. You know who died right from the start so there’s no secret in that sense.

I think the psychology of the characters is so masterfully put together, so complicated, so detailed and so accurate even though everything was a surprise. It spoke to me and I loved it so much, and then realised that lots of other people felt the same way. It was a bit culty but it made me think that stories can be whatever you want them to be.

I found it incredibly inspiring in terms of what writing can be. Just to have such an ambitious idea and then pull it off. It was amazingly well told — a masterclass of character and the psychology of those characters and what motivates them and why.