#SheReviews Judgement Day by Mali Waugh

April 19, 2023

The Family Law Courts in Australia are robustly monolithic and often draconian in nature – a formidably behemoth institution overseen by powerful and sometimes far-reachingly domineering judges. Treacherous to navigate at the best of times, the Family Law Courts are a place that no member of the public wants to ever end up. Sadly many, even the ostensibly respectable in society, find themselves to be an unwilling visitor to this dreaded, yet seemingly necessary, institution.

Such sombre truths are forensically and tellingly illustrated in superlative Australian author (she has previously worked as a lawyer), Mali Waugh’s, stratospherically absorbing debut novel, Judgement Day (a legal thriller).

Events in Judgement Day commence in a singularly disturbing fashion on the 18th of May in 2018, in the Family Law Courts in central Melbourne, when middle-aged judge, Kaye Bailey, is murdered in her chambers, after attending a farewell party for retiring chief judge, His Honour Saul Meyers, in the building, late one week night. 

Kaye had been set to be Saul’s replacement, and was known to be stridently conscientious and not one to necessarily tow the party line so to speak. As Mali writes of Kaye and her work ethos, “Her time at the court had revealed to her the inefficiencies in the family law system, the failures in culture and planning that had led to the court being a victim of it’s own success”.

On the Kaye Bailey case, from the get-go, is Detective Senior Sergeant Jillian Basset, based in Homicide in Melbourne. She is only just back at work after having been on maternity leave with her now eight month old son, Ollie. Jillian’s husband, Aaron, is now a stay-at-home dad, a fact that pleases Jillian greatly as she has been suffering from severe postnatal anxiety, and thus, inundated with dark thoughts, fears being alone with Ollie, and has not bonded with him at all.

Work is Jillian’s salve, or so she believes.

Sergeant John McClintock, amiable and apparently accommodating, is ‘working the case’ alongside Jillian. He ‘rubs Jillian up the wrong way’, and she does snap at him sometimes, but overall they ‘get the job done’.

Suspects in the case are plentiful and sometimes stand out, other times mesh into the background. Undeniably the case is a tenuous web of starkly differing people and lives lived.

Judge Virginia Maiden, who had been at the party for Saul, is a prim and discompassionate being, who doesn’t suffer fools gladly.

Judge Grant Phillips, at the party with his gaunt and sickly (physically and mentally) wife, Harriet, is polite to all.

Chief Judge Saul Meyers is full of self-importance, which is no surprise given his high standing in society.

Thrown in the mix in the methodical and prudent investigation is an abrasively intense character by the name of Brian Shanahan, a former secondary school teacher in Geelong. Now he is intentionally living with his latest wife, a Thai national, in a caravan on a bush property outside of Melbourne – most definitely an orchestrated attempt to ‘live off the grid’. He has previously been in an avalanche of trouble with the family courts, and hasn’t liked at all Kaye’s judgements in the past.

Michael O’Neil, a barrister, is Kaye’s partner at the time of her death.

Immediately prior to Kaye’s death, she was working trojan-like, on a case between forty-one year old celebrity cosmetic surgeon, Rahul Sharma, and his thirty-two year old content creator wife, Lisa Nettle. The couple are fighting over children and extensive property.

Additionally, there are associates of the judges, barristers and other clients of Kaye’s to consider in the alarming number of potential suspects.

Can Jillian and McClintock get to the murky bottom of the perhaps not so straightforward case? Was there a jealous colleague or ‘friend’ of Kaye’s that wished her ill? Were there any former clients of Kaye’s that she dealt with who didn’t like her decisions in court? Could that have led to murder?

Is Kaye’s partner, the seemingly sunny and forthcoming, Michael O’Neil, hiding anything? What had Kaye paid forty-thousand dollars to a Sydney law firm for?

Can Jillian ever overcome her anxiety to be the mother and wife she needs to be for Ollie and Aaron? Will Jillian’s anxiety affect at all her functioning as well as she needs to in the stressful job of detective?

I simply cannot speak highly enough of Judgement Day. What an interwoven and nuanced plot! So many twists and turns! What an eclectic mix of characters! 

For those who live or have resided in Melbourne, the city and suburb descriptions will delight. Of interest also, are the eloquent descriptions, so vastly different, of the residences of the judges, Jillian, Aaron and Ollie and Shanahan. (For instance, Jillian resides in a dilapidated weatherboard rental in Yarraville, while the judges all reside in opulent and astonishingly wealthy looking abodes in upmarket suburbs such as Hawthorn).

Mali has written her debut novel with endless intelligence, wisdom, insight and at-times compassion. Her reading of the human condition (the good and the bad) is supreme. 

Bravo Mali! I hope this book has many, many readers. It deserves to be widely read. I loved Judgement Day, and can’t wait to see what Mali writes next.

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