Mali Waugh’s debut procedural thriller Judgement Day takes readers behind the scenes of the Australian Family Court. This is the national jurisdiction that is responsible for matters related to divorce, property settlement and child custody issues. Given that, it is a milieu that is ripe for investigation by crime and legal fiction. But this book does not revolve around courtroom drama. Rather, it focusses on drama in the judge’s chambers and judge’s lives.
Judgement Day opens with the last day of Family Court judge Kaye Bailey. Bailey is next in line to take over the leadership of the court when her predecessor is required to retire and there is no love lost between the two. Bailey is found murdered in her chambers on the night after the retirement party at which her ascension was also confirmed. The final version of a big judgement that she was working on, resolving a long standing dispute between a famous surgeon and his wife, is also missing and it turns out that Bailey was also the subject of a number of threats and an online abuse campaign. Into this case steps detective Jillian Basset, newly returned from maternity leave and having to juggle her home life with changed politics in the office and a knotty investigation.
No procedural crime fiction would be complete without a damaged main character. Rather than hard drinking and tragic grizzled detective, Jillian Basset is part of a new cohort of fictional detectives in Australian crime fiction – young women with new families dealing with the competing pressures of work and a new baby. Just recently we’ve had forensic psychologist and investigator Natalie King taking her one year old to sleep training in Anne Buist’s Locked Ward, and Detective Kate Miles dealing with a newborn and a case involving a missing child in Dinuka McKenzie’s Taken. Early on it is clear that Jillian is dealing with some form of post-natal depression and attachment issues and is using work to avoid having to deal with those issues. In doing so, she often misjudges her colleagues and their attempts to understand her situation.
While there are some well-placed red herrings and a multi-faceted explanation for the events on the night in question, perceptive readers might pick up on the solution to this fairly quickly. They then might ask themselves how the detectives took so long to follow up certain clues. There is even a point where the Jillian and her partner berate themselves for some obvious missed lines of inquiry as they get closer to the truth.
Overall Judgement Day is a solid procedural with a recognisable, humanly flawed but frustrating main character. Waugh effectively uses the investigation to take readers behind the curtain and into a highly pressured world that few understand. In doing so she reveals that there may be as many sharks and double dealers behind the bench as there often are in front of it.