Book Review: Wake by Shelley Burr
By Angie BarrySeptember 1, 2022
I live in that house you’ve seen on the news. We painted it robin’s-egg blue the summer I turned sixteen, but in your mind it’s white. Two little pink bikes lean against the veranda, and one wall glows blue with the reflected light of a police car. They use the same picture every time there’s “news”. It’s not worth the expense to send a photographer out to get a fresh one. Not when they want the two little bikes and that streak of blue.
Nobody wants to see proof that one of those little girls grew up.
For the last nineteen years, Mina McCreery has been known as “Evie McCreery’s sister”. The twin that didn’t disappear. The one who wasn’t taken from their wealthy family’s remote farm on the edge of the Australian Outback.
All her life—even before Evelyn disappeared within weeks of their ninth birthday—Mina has been overshadowed by her prettier, more vivacious, more interesting sister. Frequently compared to the dour character Wednesday Addams, Mina is more than happy to hide from the spotlight of awful fame her family has lived under for almost two decades.
She desperately wants to know what happened to Evelyn, yes; she wants to know where her body is, to finally have closure. But she despises the hungry media vultures, the obsessed and invasive true crime fans, the greedy fortune hunters after the two million dollar reward who hound her for private details. It’s been nearly twenty years, and she’s so sick and tired of the eternal circus spinning around her sister—so when a peculiar young man begins poking around town, she wants nothing more than for him to go away and leave her alone with her grief.
“Who are you?” she asked.
“I’m Lane,” he said, pulling out a wallet. “Lane Holland.” He flipped the wallet open to show her his driver’s license. “I specialize in cold cases.”
“This isn’t a police badge,” she said. She reached out and took the wallet. A flicker of surprise crossed his face. She doubted many people crossed that boundary, but social mores could suck her dick.
The license was real, as far as she could tell. The address was in Byron Bay. If he’d driven all the way from there to talk to her, he was going to be difficult to shake. She tilted it, and found no sign of scratches or discoloration that would show he had doctored the name. The picture had the same light hair, dark eyes, and solid jawline as the man in front of her.
“I’m not with the police,” he said. “I’m a private investigator.”
She tossed the wallet back. “I see. So do you already have a book deal? If you’re planning to shop one around, you’re shit out of luck. There are already two books being pushed out in time for the twentieth anniversary; nobody’s looking to buy a third one.”
“I’m not writing a book,” he said. “I want to lay some ghosts to rest.”
“And what makes you think my ghosts need your help?” she asked.
Lane Holland is dogged and determined; not even Mina’s outright hostility can deter him. He desperately needs that reward money, for starters—with his baby sister Lynnie off at an expensive university, he has to have some way to cover all of her bills. But then there’s also a personal component to this particular case. Lane has a very vested interest in finally solving Evelyn McCreery’s now infamous disappearance. More than any other case he’s investigated, it could be the one that makes all the difference to his own family…
Amidst the dual Holland and McCreery dramas, the story of another missing girl also plays out. Christa Rennold’s case has languished in the shadows cast by Evelyn McCreery. Her sister Alanna is desperate to have answers, and knows she probably would have had them by now if only her family was richer, more photogenic, more interesting. More like the McCreery’s. Instead, nobody cares about Christa, not even on the message boards, and Alanna can’t help but resent friend Mina’s fame.
The reward money, like so many subjects, was a touchy issue. The New South Wales police had put up one of the largest rewards ever for information leading to an arrest and conviction for Evelyn’s disappearance: one million dollars. Mina’s mother had doubled it, offering a further million for any information that led to Evelyn’s recovery. Few families had the resources to pursue justice the way they had. The fact that they hadn’t got it didn’t seem to make a difference.
Mina sighed, grabbing a cushion and hugging it to her chest. She did understand. Alanna’s family couldn’t afford a private investigator, and no one was beating their door down to work for free. Her sister’s case had never got the media attention or ongoing interest that Evelyn attracted. She didn’t have a mother who was poised and camera-ready, or stacks of adorable, high-resolution photos the media could run on the front page. Nobody dissected her case, idly discussing it in the break room or online. If Mina could take her life off like a coat and let Alanna wear it, she would.
But she didn’t think Alanna would like it as much as she claimed.
Wake won the 2019 CWA Debut Dagger award, and for good reason—Burr has delivered a genuinely gripping story about a twenty-year-old cold case. There’s a solid sense of place established from page one, and the remote Outback setting lends itself well to an eerie, tragic tale. With the mystery genre dominated by American and British-set whodunits, this Aussie offering stands out from the crowd and offers something fresh for anyone tired of the usual.
The plot, the characters, and so many of the details of the Evelyn McCreery and Christa Rennold disappearances feel as though they were ripped directly from the headlines, and anyone familiar with true crime will appreciate the visceral realism here, the commentary on the psychological toll such crimes take on the survivors, not to mention the frequent references to other infamous cases.
Part of that realistic authenticity is thanks to Burr’s clever use of chatroom excerpts to pepper in clues and theories. Most of the story is told from either Mina or Lane’s perspective, but many chapters open with message board exchanges.
User Inspektor: Hi everyone, I’m new to this forum and I keep seeing acronyms everywhere. Some I can figure out from context, but can anyone shed some light on these: WAKE, SKE, TIKE?
User Waffletoid: They’re unique to discussion of the Evie McCreery case, although you’ll see the last one used as a joke in other subforums sometimes. WAKE stands for “Wednesday Addams Killed Evie”, which is used to flag that the poster is a crackpot right up front. SKE means “Stranger Killed Evie”. “TIKE” means “The Illuminati Killed Evie”, and is mostly used to make fun of the WAKEs.
User Inspektor: Wednesday Addams?
User LionSong: Wednesday Addams is what some jackholes in this forum call Mina McCreery. The press ran a quote from a friend of the family saying that Beverley, the girls’ mother, called Mina “Wednesday” as a nickname. People have really run with it.
Both of Wake’s protagonists are deeply wounded people with plenty of secrets they keep close to their chests. Watching them slowly connect and reveal their layers provides most of the story’s tension and momentum, and it isn’t long before we’re rooting for them both to find peace (whether they do or not I won’t spoil here).
And while you wouldn’t expect there to be high stakes with a mystery that’s been cold for twenty years, Burr does a great job of throwing in a couple of surprising left turns—I won’t even call them twists; they’re not nearly that gimmicky or cliché—that unseats us as much as the characters. As more facts of that fateful night in 1999 are uncovered, as we discover all of the ways Mina and Lane are connected or parallel each other, everything builds into a solid, satisfying climax with real repercussions for them both.
All in all, Wake may not be incredibly original, but it is one of the best takes on a familiar tale I’ve read in some time. Burr takes a solid framework and builds a darn fine, frequently impressive house around it out of secrets, human evil, and abiding grief and guilt. Never does she expect us to suspend our disbelief for a wild leap, and she respects her audience enough to not give us easy answers or frustrating red herrings. The many mysteries that unfold here are all wonderfully planned out and exactingly revealed. Burr is already a master at crafting a mystery—and I’m already looking forward to her next book.