By Anne Buist

Publisher/Year: Text Publishing 2023

Publisher’s blurb

Natalie King may be a psychiatrist, but that doesn’t mean she can persuade her baby to go to sleep. Sienna wants to party through the night—and lack of sleep is a major trigger for Natalie’s bipolar disorder.

Sleep school at Southside private psych unit, however, turns out to have its own hazards. It’s bad enough that Natalie doesn’t really want to be there, that she wants to keep her professional status quiet and that she’s seen enough group therapy to be quite sure it’s not her thing. But then someone arrives who Natalie knows very well indeed—and not in a good way.

Luckily she’s out of Southside by the time the murder happens. Unluckily, she knows everyone who’s involved, including the cops. They think they have an open-and-shut case. Natalie’s pretty sure they’ve locked the door on the wrong person.

Reviewer: Rachel Le Rossignol

Natalie King is a forensic psychiatrist, but when it comes to parenting she is just another patient, admitted with her daughter Sienna to the Southside Mother–Baby unit to find a solution to infant Sienna’s tendency to ‘party all night’. Natalie is bipolar and soon finds the high conflict atmosphere of the ward and the bullying behaviour of one of the nurses, Parveen, is placing her mental health at risk. She discharges herself early from the five-day program. Less than 24 hours later Parveen is murdered, apparently by Jamillah, a refugee who has been brought to the ward from Nauru with her daughter Shamso.

As an inpatient Natalie saw the nurses and other mothers from an insider’s perspective, a change from her usual role of assessing and treating mental illness. This insider insight tells her something isn’t right about the open and shut case, so in her professional capacity she starts asking questions. Her position as investigator is complicated because her stepsister was still on the ward when the murder occurred; her ex-partner (and father of Sienna), Damian, is one of the investigating officers; and her nemesis, another psychiatrist, is assessing Jamillah’s mental competence at the time of the murder. On top of that, she is struggling with the risks of having a psychotic episode and with the cracks in her new relationship with Liam, who has his own issues.

Locked Ward is peopled with a truly diverse range of fully realised characters reflective of multicultural Australia. It unflinchingly considers Australia’s poor track record and biased media coverage around refugees and the reality of their lives in detention. At the same time, it delves into the world of new mothers, with all its pressures, which are exacerbated for those on the ward due to mental illness. Issues of post-natal depression, PTSD and bipolar are realistically depicted with a sympathetic, understanding eye. The conflicting egos of the various power players involved in the investigation is uncomfortably true to life.

Natalie is a smart woman with a complicated life and a wild past who uses the authority of her job and her connection with her stepsister to gather a great deal of information to back up her instinct that Jamillah might not be behind the murder. The efforts of her sister Madison to help her lead to some possibly ill-advised choices as it becomes apparent someone doesn’t like the direction the investigation is taking.

This has to be the most transparent investigative process I’ve read in a crime novel as we see Natalie fumbling along, putting the pieces together, trying on different theories, and using her psychiatric expertise to think through all the possibilities. The reader truly walks alongside Natalie in the investigative process, which is a refreshing change from those novels where the detective has worked out what’s going on, but the reader is kept in the dark. The nuances of the case keep you guessing all the way through until the satisfying reveal.

This is a highly intelligent novel embedded in a highly realistic world. Definitely worth a read.