Publisher: Allen & Unwin (Trade Paperback – 2 May 2023)
Series: Standalone/Book One
Length: 375 pages
My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars
Acclaimed Australian screenwriter Joan Sauers makes her crime fiction debut in a big way with the clever and enticing mystery novel, Echo Lake, a riveting read that makes great use of its iconic Australian setting.
Following an ugly divorce, historian Rose McHugh decides to completely uproot her life and move out of the hustle and bustle of Sydney. Following her dreams of a rural lifestyle, Rose moves to the Southern Highlands of Australia, buying a rustic cabin outside the town of Berrima. However, despite her hopes of an idealised and quiet life in the countryside, Rose is about to discover that the Southern Highlands have some big secrets.
After an encounter with a local thug, Rose makes an intriguing discovery of an undeveloped roll of film buried in her back garden. Burning with curiosity, Rose develops the photos, only to discover that they contain the last known pictures of a beautiful young woman who went missing six years earlier and who the police suspect was murdered. Fascinated by the mysterious turn of events, Rose decides to do her own digging into the case.
However, rather than the fun adventure she was expecting, Rose soon finds herself in grave danger when one of the people she talks to winds up dead. Going against the advice of the police, Rose continues her investigation, working with a cohort of new friends from around the local towns. But the closer she gets to the truth, the more she discovers that there is something sinister going on in her new home. Can Rose uncover the truth before it is too late, or will she also end up a cautionary tale of the Southern Highlands?
This was an excellent first novel from Sauers, who takes the reader on a magical and entertaining journey into a great Australian setting with this gripping murder mystery. Echo Lake is a fantastic read that really does a good job of drawing you in with its scenic and beautiful locales before hooking you with the captivating mystery. Sauers starts the story off strongly, showcasing the location while also introducing you to protagonist Rose McHugh, whose complex history, relationships, and canine companion makes her quite an appealing character. The initial chapters focus on her getting her bearing in the various towns of the Southern Highlands, including meeting members of the supporting cast, before she is dragged into the mystery of the missing woman thanks to a discovery of film in her backyard. From there the mystery develops at a quick pace, as a witness is murdered, and Joan finds herself both a target and a suspect. Doing her own investigation, she uncovers several new clues that slowly begin to unravel the mystery, which becomes her new obsession. At the same time, Sauers provides an intense and compelling examination into Rose’s life in the Southern Highlands, as well as her complex history and desires for the future. There are some moving moments as Rose attempts to get her life on track and this ties nicely into the final revelations about who the killer is and how they have been targeting people. This results in an intense and captivating conclusion that I was pretty hooked to, and this ended up being a really good and entertaining read.
I quite liked how Echo Lake turned out, and Sauers did a fantastic job of creating a novel that was both exciting and heartfelt. Echo Lake falls within the cosy mystery subgenre as the book is often focused on Rose’s life and amateur sleuthing rather than scenes of death and carnage. I felt that the author got the right balance of character development, scene setting and personal drama within Echo Lake that served as a great counterbalance to the crime fiction side of things. You really get to know and appreciated Rose and the cast of supporting characters, and it will be fun to see them again if Sauers ends up doing a sequel. I will admit that I wasn’t always the biggest fan of the protagonist, mainly because Sauers gave her psychic vibes (a major cliché for me) and she makes a lot of silly decisions. Despite this, I still really enjoyed her emotional journey, and she served as a great focus for the plot. Sauers also produced a great mystery in Echo Lake, and I liked how twisty and complex it got in the places. The raft of intriguing and memorable supporting characters worked to create multiple possible suspects, each of whom may have had a connection to the case, and you are left wondering for a good portion of the novel who might have done it. I think the eventual reveal of the killer was done well and Sauers set it up with some clever clues. As such, this ends up being a very impressive read and I had a great time getting through this classy and compelling read.
While I loved the story and characters, for me the best and most iconic part of Echo Lake was the author’s brilliant use of setting as she explores the Southern Highlands of Australia. The Southern Highlands is a historical area of Australia that lies between Canberra and Sydney, and which is now filled with picturesque small towns that cater to the tourist trade. Sauers’ is clearly a fan of this area and makes great use of this setting throughout Echo Lake, featuring several notable local towns and bush locations, often in entertaining and clever ways. Due to a lifetime of travelling between Canberra and Sydney, I am well familiar with these towns, and I can say that Sauers did a pretty awesome job of capturing their feel and layout. You can really sense each town’s distinctive vibes through Sauers’ writing, and I loved how she captured the beauty and sense of community that they have. The author goes out of her way to feature as many iconic places from these locations as possible, including several of the better cafes, stores, pubs, and even the local dog park. I was personally happy that Sauers featured the iconic and fun antique shop, Dirty Janes, in her novel (a favourite of my wife/editor), and Echo Lake often came across a bit like a tourist brochure at times.
However, the really impressive setting descriptions in Echo Lake come when Sauers looks at the bushland that surrounds the central town locations. Many of the most dramatic moments of Echo Lake occur out in the ancient bush and walking trails the area is known for, and the author does a beautiful job showing how isolated, quiet and hauntingly beautiful these bush locations can be. These descriptions run the gauntlet from awe-inspiring to extremely sinister, depending on the tone of the story, but they always work to enhance the book no matter the scene. As such, I was deeply impressed by the authors use of setting, and I loved how well she featured this familiar Australian location into this amazing novel.
Overall, Echo Lake was a great first novel from Joan Sauers who produced a comfortable and intriguing Australian murder mystery. I loved the interesting story and striking settings of Echo Lake, which work wonderfully together to produce a captivating and entertaining read. A fantastic novel that is really worth checking out.
2 thoughts on “Echo Lake by Joan Sauers”
Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I feel like I must have missed something when reading Echo Lake, other than being excellently grounded in setting I found the story to be lacklustre.
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