Sarah Bailey – Body of Lies

Allen & Unwin, Australia, 2024
Cover design Luke Causby/Blue Cork
Cover images Adobe Stock

The body snatching that occurs early in this novel will immediately flag for those of us of a certain vintage both the 17th, 18th and 19th century practice of the removal and sale of corpses for medical dissection and the fanciful sci-fi novel The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Jack Finney,1954) and film adaptations (1956, 1978, 1993 and 2007).

Sarah Bailey talks to Barbie about Body of Lies

The subject itself proves endlessly fascinating for audiences and readers and its potential has obviously proved so for writers.

With the nagging question of why someone would steal a corpse from the morgue of Smithson hospital, Detective Sergeant Gemma Woodstock becomes involved in a complex investigation – despite being on maternity leave when the crime breaks.

There seems to be a personal connection, but she can’t quite put her finger on it. And then a brutal murder follows, also somehow connected to the hospital and its personnel.

Interestingly, contemporary crime fiction is developing a collection of novels with female lead police officer characters who are also mothers of young children or who come with a private life. Dinuka Mckenzie and Vikki Petraitis spring readily to mind.

The thrilling and intriguing plot of this novel is strongly underlaid with apparently commonplace domestic and social issues. Family is strong not only in theme but in the plot of Body of Lies as Woodstock grapples with the demands of young children, worries about her marriage and the usual sexism of the police establishment – albeit she has an onside boss.

She’s not supposed to be back at work but for reasons that gradually become clear, Jonesy is encouraging her involvement. He’s also hinting at retirement – to her dismay.

As the story hurtles on, the author cleverly ekes out the clues in real time as she gives them to Woodstock – there are puzzles within puzzles here as Gemma tries to unwrap her parents’ secrets and to figure out if her husband is having an affair.  She’s also on the trail of an apparent cult – who doesn’t love a good cult exposé?

A bolshy foil to Gemma and her hardly surprising rather angst-ridden state of mind comes in the character of Candy Fyfe, her online journalist friend. Candy’s take no prisoners attitude and pizzazz allow her to venture where Gemma cannot, unbound by legal restraints. It thus gives the reader not just a second viewpoint but also more hints about the secrets that hover over everything in this community.

Questions of morality are the bedrock of this novel. It peers into ethical standards in workplaces and homes. Closed institutions are particularly prone to abuse and in this story we have a couple of prime examples.

There is still a big gap too in the number of women in top jobs in many of these places and hence the minion role is often held by women. A key question that arises in this book is how much we can allow our personal relationships to cloud our judgement or to prompt us to apply different standards of behaviour and consequence.

Different parenting situations and models are also examined in this story. Gemma has had an absent mother and hence a troubled and unresolved childhood. Her dad had to manage for many years bringing up his daughter alone. Their relationship now includes a new partner for Dad, and Gemma is still not easy with her stepping into the role of grandmother.

Gemma in turn now lives with a partner who is not the father of her first child and must negotiate the new relationship of her first husband and the involvement of her son with his stepmother. Candy provides yet another scenario – but the two women have a good partnership going with shared childminding gigs.

It is easy to see why so many women are enjoying crime novels of this sort, finding situations with which they can identify whilst admiring the gutsy though not entirely fearless heroine. Gemma is vulnerable on many counts, her marriage, her hankering after a loving mother, her own role as a mother, her return to work and finding the balance one is supposed to between high pressure jobs like policing and the different sort of high pressure of mothering.

She wants to be the lead investigator and is constantly finding fault with Everett, the chap who’s taken what she sees as her job – turns out he has secrets and vulnerabilities too. However, she acknowledges that it might not be workable with young children at home. This is accentuated by a personal attack in the course of this investigation that knocks her for a while.

Sarah Bailey has written an absorbing and fast-moving story with an unusual set of crimes. Its moral complexity is part of the pleasure of reading, as is the ordinariness of so many of Woodstock’s dilemmas. Perhaps we couldn’t really see ourselves in some of her predicaments – though we might like to fantasise about daring and danger – but we do very much enjoy knowing she’ll escape and live to tell the tale and help to deliver justice. It’s precisely what we want from our crime fiction, after all.

Thank you to Allen & Unwin for my review copy and to Sarah for speaking with me about this super book, as well as crime and contemporary society.