Reviewed by Ian Lipke
Echo Lake was meant to scare its readers. It is the standard “who-dunnit” that, apart from the aim of untangling clues and deciding who caused the death of Victim X, builds an image that scares the reader as it unfolds. It is the author’s intention that readers should be left uncomfortable for as long as possible. That is not to say that Joan Sauers is another Stephen King, but rather that her stories roll along comfortably, each contributing their bit to making its readers increasingly tense.
This story begins with a short segment that suggests a stalker is about his business. The exact dynamics are never made completely clear but the suggestion is planted that a murder has happened. It soon becomes clear that a beautiful young woman had gone missing, not to be found until six years had passed.
The pace in the early chapters matches the bucolic nature of a small town in the Southern Highlands of New South Wales. In order to give the story some life a recently divorced historian decides to start her life over again in the town. At this point one of the almost-unbelievable events occurs – a roll of film is found buried in the historian’s garden. When the negatives are developed, photos of the missing woman are found among many pictures of garden grass. After many hours contemplating the likelihood of this happening, the films remain in the unbelievable category in my mind.
Just as far-fetched is the response of local chief Detective Inspector Blackmore who spends untold hours of patient police time listening to and following up the hypotheses of an amateur sleuth. Newcomer to town Rose McHugh has the time to decipher tangled secrets that have long been buried; he has not. Yet out of all of her wandering speculation, she is proved right. A murderer does exist.
All the characters are matched to the environments in which they have been placed. Blackmore is a country policeman and less sensitive than his city cousins. He does not understand that she wants to create a new garden herself. When the SOCO crowd destroy Rose’s garden, he has no problem directing where the rhododendron should be replanted, his attitude being that Rose would not have the capability of replanting a simple garden. Since Rose is a city person, she requires his assistance. It does not occur to him that she may have sensitivities that should not be ignored. This attitude leads to a turning point in the tale. Believing that a romance might be developing between Rose and the policeman, readers receive a mild shock to find Rose beginning to refrain from sharing her thoughts and to openly begin to mistrust him.
A problem I find with the story is the identification of who plays which role. Who is the real killer? Who is the real hero? In the closing pages of the book, readers are still sorting out who can be trusted. Who is Rose likely to be safe with? Where did Kim disappear to? Rose did not know, and for long periods neither did the reader?
What is told very strikingly is the reality of life in the mountains. Country people are much the same the world over and these village people struck me as authentic. An example of a ‘type’ (not a villager in this example) is Sauers’ description of Sam who, it is obvious to all has been imbibing a little too freely.
One of the great saving graces of this book is the author’s ability to laugh at herself – somebody must.
by Joan Sauers
Allen & Unwin
$32.99; 386 pp.