Publisher: Allen & Unwin (Trade Paperback – 31 August 2021)
Length: 454 pages
My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Impressive Australian author Sarah Bailey returns with The Housemate, an outstanding and intense murder mystery that takes a complex protagonist through a dark journey as they attempt to solve an infamous murder.
It was the crime that shocked all of Australia: one night, after a fractious party in the suburbs of Melbourne, three female housemates would become infamous for all the wrong reasons. In the morning, one of the housemates is found brutally murdered, another is found covered in her blood, while the third goes missing and her body is never found. Dubbed the Housemate Homicide, the unexplained murder, the mysterious disappearance, and the subsequent controversial court case has baffled and enthralled the country for years. This includes Olive Groves, a journalist who got her first big break covering the murder and who then became obsessed with cracking the case.
Nine years later, the body of the missing housemate is found in a remote property in the Victorian countryside. Despite dealing with her own dark personal issues, Olive is assigned to cover the story, and soon finds herself once again dragged into her deepest obsession. Teamed up with millennial podcaster Cooper Ng, Olive begins to immerse herself in the details of the murder, reigniting her fiery obsession.
As Olive and Cooper work to uncover new details about the case and the three women at the heart of it, they start to make some startling discoveries. None of the housemates were what they seemed, and all had dark and terrible secrets that have remained hidden for years. What really happened to these three friends, and what secret was so terrible that they would kill to protect it? Olive is about to discover that there is a dark conspiracy at work throughout this case, one whose roots may lay far closer to home than she ever imagined, and whose discovery may end up breaking her.
This was an incredible and extremely clever dark murder mystery from Sarah Bailey, who has previously produced some impressive and compelling pieces of Australian fiction. The Housemate was pretty exceptional read and I quickly found myself getting really caught up in this remarkable and well-written piece of crime fiction. The author weaved together a dark and compelling tale of betrayal, murder and tainted love, featuring an extremely damaged protagonist and multiple epic twists.
The Housemate has a pretty amazing and memorable murder mystery narrative that follows a reporter as she attempts to uncover the truth behind an infamous cold case. Bailey does a great job setting up the plot of this book in the early pages, showing the protagonist’s involvement in reporting the initial discovery of the murder, before initiating a time skip nine years in the future. Once there, the author spends a little time exploring how the protagonist’s life has changed in the intervening years, before swiftly starting the next stage of the mystery, with the discovery of a body out in the Victorian countryside that has connections to the murders. The rest of the book flows by at a quick pace after this, as the reader gets stuck into the re-opened investigation. Bailey starts the various twists flying early, and the reader is soon struck with a series of theories, leads, potential suspects and connected side characters, all of which add to the overall tapestry of the mystery, while also serving to keep you guessing about who is responsible for the murder, and that isn’t even mentioning the compelling flashbacks from the surviving housemate.
As the investigation continues, The Housemate’s story continues to get even more complex, as the personal life of the protagonist, Olive, gets dragged into the plot, especially as Olive is in a complex relationship with the widower of the primary police investigator of the original case. This results in some extremely intense moments as Olive begins to suspect everyone, which has a major impact on her grip on reality. I deeply appreciated the psychological thriller aspects that were worked in, as the reader starts to really question Olive’s grip on her sanity, and it helped to make the story even darker and more unpredictable. Everything really kicks off in the final third of the novel, especially after the case becomes even more potentially convoluted and connected to a wider conspiracy. There were some great reveals in this final third of the novel, and a pretty major and surprising event that really changes everything. I found myself absolutely glued to this book in the final stages, as I couldn’t wait to see what happened. While I did think that the author was a little too heavy handed when it came to suggesting that one particular character was the murderer, I thought the eventual reveal of who was behind everything was extremely clever. The solution to the historic murder was very impressive, especially as some of the elements were set up extremely early in the novel and you didn’t even realise it. I really loved the impressive way the case was wrapped up, although the end of the final confrontation was a tad too coincidental for my taste. Still, it was a really great way to finish the novel, and I was well and truly hooked by this awesome and dark tale of murder.
You can’t talk about The Housemate without mentioning the author’s great characters, especially protagonist, Olive Groves (a fun name). Olive is a complex and damaged woman, who has been obsessed with the novel’s central case ever since she saw the suspected killer and the various family members emerging from the house during the initial media coverage. Years later, Olive now has a complex life, as she is living with the controlling widower of the cop who was originally investigating the crimes, something she is immensely guilty and conflicted about. Her already fragile mental state is put at risk when she starts working on the latest developments in the Housemate Homicides case, which reawakens her long-dormant obsession. This obsession drives her to investigate the case by any means and takes her to some dark spaces as she tries to get into the head of the three housemates and figure out what happened to them. Olive slowly goes downhill as the novel progresses thanks to a combination of stress, obsession, anger, and multiple personal reasons, such as the actions of her emotionally abusive partner and her own massive guilt for sleeping with him while his wife was still alive. Olive has a big breakdown towards the end of the novel, especially after a major surprise event, and it was fascinating to see such a dramatic and powerful burst of emotion. This compelling personal crisis is perfectly worked into the plot of the book, and it really helped to enhance the main murder mystery storyline, especially as you become really concerned for Olive’s mental and physical safety. I appreciated the way in which Bailey wrapped up Olive’s character arc by the end of the novel, and I cannot emphasise what an impressive bit of character work Bailey did around her.
Aside from Olive, there is a great collection of complex side characters throughout the novel, each of whom play a vital role in the case. The main one is Cooper Ng, the socially shy tech expert and social media whiz who is assigned to help Olive investigate, with the two required to develop a new podcast for their paper. Cooper is a fun and energetic figure who stands as the complete opposite to Olive’s gruffer and irritable personality. Cooper and Olive make for an interesting partnership throughout the book, and it was fun to see them combine their vastly different skills and experiences. The author also spends a bit of time examining each of the three housemates who were at the centre of the book’s mystery. It initially appears that all three were bright and optimistic students when the fateful night occurred. However, as the book progresses you begin to see that they are a lot more complex than that, with all three involved in something dodgy. Seeing how they were driven to the events that occurred the night of the killing is pretty fascinating, and I really appreciated the dark and intense storyline that Bailey weaved around them. All these characters, and more, added a lot to the story, and I loved the fantastic and realistic interactions that occurred within.
The final thing that I wanted to highlight about The Housemate was its interesting examination of Australian journalism. I have always rather liked journalist protagonists in fiction, due to their less formal way of investigating crimes, and this worked very well in the context of The Housemate, with Olive employing some interesting methods to get answers. The focus on obtaining information for a story rather than attempting to bring someone to justice is very compelling and I loved seeing the protagonists setting up stories and podcasts. I also quite enjoyed the interesting examination of the evolving form of journalism that was represented by the two main characters, Olive and Cooper. Olive is the more old-school reporter, who just wants to do good journalism without resorting to popular gimmicks. Cooper, on the other hand, is the flash new kid, focusing on social media and podcasting, which he sees as the future of journalism. This fun comparison between reporting styles formed an interesting basis for their partnership, especially as they are brought together to do a podcast on the murders, and I felt that this was a great inclusion to an already exciting and entertaining narrative.
The Housemate by Sarah Bailey was an exceptional and captivating read that I had an outstanding time reading. Featuring a dark and thrilling mystery storyline, this Australian murder mystery was incredibly addictive, especially once you get caught up in the unique investigation and complex personal life of the protagonist. I really enjoyed seeing this fantastic story come together, and I was really impressed with how Bailey tied her brilliant mystery together. Easily one of the best pieces of Australian fiction I have read all year, The Housemate gets a full five-star rating from me and is a very highly recommended read.