Australian Books

Wilder still and wilder

31 March 2018

9:00 AM

31 March 2018

9:00 AM

Hello! Hello! Hello! What have we here? What we have is the new Plant – the sixth – from Michael Wilding, Emeritus Professor of English and Australian Literature, University of Sydney.

And is it ever a cracker? Well, no. Wilding is a slow-burn writer. As aficionados of his Plant stories know, he does not deal in knuckle-sandwiches, quick-draw pistoleering or intrepid venery as befits an M.A. Hons, Oxon, editor of Isis and the co-winner of the Prime Minister’s Literary Award in 2015 for Wild Bleak Bohemia: Marcus Clarke, Adam Lindsay Gordon and Henry Kendall.

Wilding’s investigator Plant is passive-aggressive. Ousted Prime Minister Tony Abbott described himself as John Howard and Bronwyn Bishop’s political love child. In similar vein, it can be said that Plant is the literary offspring of the Agatha Christie characters, Hercule Poirot and Miss Marples,

In the surname Plant, there may be a whiff of a pun; play is made with his concomitant paranoia. Certainly Plant is not shaken or stirred with vodka Martinis but smoke does get in his eyes and it’s not the gumtree kind.

More definitively Plant is in the line of detectives created by academics; this includes Cecil Day-Lewis (M.A. Oxon), alias Nicholas Blake, whose works include 16 Nigel Strangeways stories. Add Dorothy L. Sayers (M.A. Oxon) who wrote the Lord Peter Wimsey-Harriet Vane stories and the slogan, ‘It pays to advertise’ but considered her best work to be her translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy.

And take in J.I.M. Stewart alias Michael Innes; during an extraordinary university cycle (Oxford, Leeds, Adelaide, Queen’s, Belfast, Oxford), he wrote some 50 detective novels, his most notable character being Detective Inspector John Appleby of Scotland Yard.

Robert Bruce Montgomery (B.A. Oxon) may be the most fascinating of the line; as Edmund Crispin he wrote nine detective stories featuring Gervais Fen, an Oxford don, while finding time to compose theme music for the Carry on comedy series.

Here mention must be made of Peter Corris; his hard-case, ex-army detective, Cliff Hardy, has tended to disguise the fact that Corris is an academic (M.A. Monash University, PhD. History, ANU).

Plant himself is not an academic. He does give the impression that by osmosis he has absorbed some of his creator’s experiences as a teacher, writer and publisher. He may even have gone to Oxford University and been rusticated like Auberon Waugh or he may be that mythical figure, B.A. Cantab (Failed),

In Little Demon, Plant is hired to find a stolen computer belonging to a former music-industry journalist Rock (ouch!) Richmond whose past includes government department commissions and whose future hangs on a putative best-seller about Byron Bay’s Hippiedom being used to cover arms caches, secret militias and survivalist communes.

Risky stuff which piles Richmond’s abrupt loss of life on top of his loss of his computer. Even that plot synopsis is tricky: Wilding’s plots, like those of the American lawyer-writer George V. Higgins, are carried on his dialogue. Summarising them is like gulping a fine wine, it destroys their subtlety.

Reference to The Aspern Papers hints at Wilding’s admiration for Henry James whose novella of that title is perhaps the Olympus of academic detective stories.

The term ‘Secret State’ surfaces in Little Demon without attribution to Richard Hall’s work, published in 1978. It may be, however, that Hall does enter disguised as Toby Oates, a professor into plonk and tucker with a side dish of red herrings.

The other running character is Fullalove, a hack-about-town on the comeback trail whose city-slicker aversion to bush living is overdone.

Apropos Plant’s sex life, noted above as less than intrepid, he does have one; he is caught between the dominant drug-case lawyer Maggie, Rock Richmond’s widow, and Madiml, a sea nymph whose bedability gives the novel its title.

If Wilding does have a weakness, it’s that he tends to let his dialogue run on without scene setting. Or he back-announces the scene. This is not to suggest he cannot describe a scene. Savour this snifter: Plant headed inland towards Nimbin. The two-stoned bird principle. He needed some dope and he could check out Rock Richmond with Max. Max had lived here since near the beginning of time. Alternative time. Before that it had been dairy farmers and before that the Great Dreaming. The trees fluttered their leaves with anticipation, stands of bracken quivered, the morning sun tinged the wisps of grass golden. Dope was in the air, its energy pulsing across the hills. The resin hung drowsily over the fields, down the valleys the morning mists exuded cannabis saturated dew.

Introducing his military character, Jake Illingworth, who runs the Australia First Caravan Park and the Eureka Rifle Club, Wilding uses the term ‘posh private-school accent’. Does the Governor-General of Australia Sir Peter Cosgrove (Waverley College, Sydney, Duntroon with a Vietnam M.C.) have such a voice? ‘Officer tone of command’ might’ve been more precise.

Writers create their landscape. Thomas Hardy’s characters inhabit Wessex, William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County. Wilding’s country is Byron Bay, its beaches, its hinterland, its lighthouse, evoked lambently in Amelia Walker’s cover design.

The Miles Franklin Award won in 2010 by Peter Temple for Truth has belatedly opened fresh possibilities for the detective genre. John Le Carré should have got the Booker Prize in 1974 for Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Or if not that, The Honourable Schoolboy (1977). Or if not that …

Little Demon is a welcome addition to the Plant canon provided Michael Wilding does not allow it to distract him from his main work in progress, a trilogy already two-thirds of a masterpiece on the evidence of Academia Nuts and Superfluous Men.

Completion of this work is all the more urgent, given that universities are undergoing a 20th-21st century evolution to the profit-driven degree mills of the United States, and Wilding’s nuts remember the more civilised way things were when the Oxbridge model prevailed.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments