New Zealand-born and currently based debut author Jacqueline Bublitz lived on Melbourne’s St Kilda Road when she heard the horrific news of the brutal murder of pastry chef Renea Lau.
Lau was attacked, killed and left naked in the Royal Botanic Gardens in the early hours of the morning as she made her way to work. Bublitz was disturbed by how quickly her story slipped from the nightly news.
It occurred in an area where Bublitz would catch her breath on reaching the busy tramline after jogging the Tan.
“It really hit me,” Ms Bublitz recalls.
She would sit at a memorial site created for Lau and think about this young woman’s life before the incident.
“I wanted to learn about her, but it’s easier to learn about what happened to her.”
The tragedy also got her thinking about the joggers, dog walkers and fisherfolk who so often appear in these horrific news stories as throwaway lines. What must it be like to stumble across such a horrendous crime scene?
“They are quite anonymous, and I assume they prefer to be, but I couldn’t find much about that experience.”
She was frustrated by the demoralising regularity of these horrendous crimes, and how quickly the outrage passes.
Ms Bublitz began to process these feelings on paper. That was the beginning of her debut novel Before You Knew My Name. It’s a different kind of crime thriller, one that purposefully does not focus on the murder or the perpetrator.
Instead, it is the story of two women. There’s Alice, the small-town American who, like many before her, heads to New York City for a fresh start.
And then there’s Ruby, the Melbourne woman who does the same, seeking respite from an emotionally abusive relationship with a man who is about to marry another woman.
Homicide on the Hudson
Ruby winds up discovering Alice’s broken body by the Hudson River. She doesn’t know her name, but is determined to find out who she was.
The New York angle came from Bublitz’ obsession with Broadway while growing up far, far away in New Zealand. “I knew that New York would work for the story in a way that even Melbourne or Sydney wouldn’t. It’s still a city where you could be anonymous, and there’s this aspect of the story where Alice becomes a Jane Doe for a while.”
Ms Bublitz decided to cash in her long-service leave and head to New York for a few months, using that time to explore the story nagging at the corners of her mind.
“I wasn’t sure how I was going to tell this story,” she says. “Maybe it would be exclusively through Ruby, but there were limitations around what she could know and discover.”
“And then one sunny day, Alice just came to me fully formed and it became clear, pretty quickly, that that was the story – that this young woman would have the agency to decide what she would share and what was important, which obviously can’t happen in real life when someone’s been murdered.
“But I do wish that when these kinds of cases are reported on, there was much more of a focus on who this person was and might have been, as opposed to this terrible thing that happened to them.”
Sadly, Ms Bublitz’ father was very ill during the final edits of the novel, and she finished it only after his death. Writing became another way to process her grief, and to deal with the depressing regularity of attacks on women. She’s already working on her next novel, which focuses on domestic violence.
“This is a huge, systemic problem, and it’s going to take a lot more soul searching and bravery,” she said.
“There are so many extraordinary women trying to have this conversation, and it’s still framed somewhat as a debate. We don’t need to debate that there is a problem.”
She hopes the current national conversation signals the “dying gasp of a patriarchal system, these really binary ideas about gender in society, and this power imbalance.”
When the news about Brittany Higgins rocked Canberra, Ms Bublitz found there were days she could not write.
“I’m super-conscious that I’m not an expert, but I hope I can contribute a little. And if someone wants to sit down and have a wine with me and get mad about it, then I’m your woman.”
Before You Knew My Name is out now from Allen & Unwin