Australian author Megan Goldin delivers a thought provoking read in her third crime novel The Night Swim. Her debut The Girl in Kellers Way was part procedural part domestic noir, her second The Escape Room was a revenge-fantasy thriller that dealt with office politics. The Night Swim is something different again, part courtroom drama, part cold case investigation, it is overall a sobering exploration of the issues around sexual abuse, particularly among older teens and young people, and the way that behaviour is treated by the broader community.
Rachel Krall has become famous on the back of two seasons of a true crime podcast called Guilty or Not Guilty. In those two seasons she investigated cold cases. Seeking to up the ante, she decides to base her third season on a pending court case. This case involves an allegation of rape by a sixteen year old against a slightly older wealthy swimming star in the small American coastal town of Neapolis. At a stop on the way to the town she finds an envelope on her windshield. Inside is a letter from Hannah Stills, a listener who wants Rachel to investigate the twenty-five year old death of her sister Jenny. Hannah will continue to communicate with Rachel by letter, stepping out the story behind Jenny’s death.
The true crime podcaster as protagonist has become fairly common of late. Good recent examples include Benjamin Stevenson’s Greenlight and Charlie Donlea’s Don’t Believe It. And there are some real life podcasters who have reinvestigated cases and either had them reopened or their outcomes reversed as a result. Rachel Krall is a good example of the type – intuitive, driven, sure of the rightness of her cause. As the trial progresses and she tries to remain neutral, she cops abuse from both sides of the debate but struggles on. And in the end she cannot but help take a side.
The Night Swim is a powerful book, charting as it does the way in which young women have been and continue to be preyed upon by their male peers. But also how the system either fails them completely or forces them to relive their abuse in order to achieve some form of justice. Jenny, who is subject to multiple instances of sexual abuse does not have the same opportunities for justice as Kelly Moore, the victim on trial. But both face the judgement of their small community, and the idea that somehow they are the instigators, or somehow at fault. There are no easy answers here, only the illumination of a global issue that, despite increasing awareness as a result of #Metoo and other movements, does not seem to be getting any better,.
Goldin uses some well-established crime fiction tropes like the courtroom drama and some newer ones associated with the true crime podcasting world, to deliver an indictment of modern society and its attitudes to women. While there are some very broad thematic connections with her earlier works, The Night Swim is another change of pace and style from a crime writer who is showing that she can deliver in a number of registers.