Review: Stephen Knighton Michael Wilding

Spooks and Plants: on the crime fiction of Michael Wilding

Michael Wilding, prolific author of academic books and exotic fiction, and now well-established as an Australian crime writer, arrived in Australia in the 1960s as one of that period’s academic refugees. He served his time in the then enormous English Department at Sydney University, with more than fifty lecturing staff, and even its own cricket team.

Moving steadily from lecturer to professor — though he most favoured the title of Reader — Wilding was also always writing fiction, and soon cut a dash with other tell-it-all troublemakers of the time such as Carmel Bird, Frank Moorhouse Vikki Viidikas and Peter Carey. Unlike most of them Wilding not only continued writing literary fiction but also spread his scholarly wings. He kept up his research on seventeenth-century literature but soon turned his gaze to Australia and worked on Marcus Clarke. Laurie Hergenhan, in the honorary essay collection for Wilding published in 2004 entitled Running Wild, notes the similarity between the two clever young migrants, both of whom enjoyed a good night out but also quested for past patterns by which to judge the present. Wilding wrote a short early book on Clarke and more recently Wild Bleak Bohemia, published in 2014: this powerful recreation of the inner lives of Clarke and his friends Adam Lindsay Gordon and Henry Kendall shared the Prime Minister’s Literary Prize for non-fiction in 2015. To these interests Wilding added modern and local scholarship, as in Political Fictions (1980) and Studies in Classic Australian Fiction (1997); he also wrote a deal of semi-autobiographical material on publishing, writing, censorship and attitudes in modern Australian fiction.

In his first novel,  Living Together (1974), the topic was the modern world of Sydney youth: their drinks, jokes and wide-ranging misbehaviour challenged publishing propriety, and Wilding’s short stories, like Moorhouse’s, at times appeared in the girlie magazine Squire. Things grew even more exotic: The Short Story Embassy (1975) is a publishing fantasy where characters lose control; staccato sexuality fuses with travelogue in Scenic Drive (1976); Pacific Highway (1982) combines personal and rural adventures; and Wilding crossed the Pacific in political mode for the documentary novel The Paraguayan Experiment (1984), about William Lane’s Utopian settlement of the 1890s.

Later a mode of reminiscence came to prevail in Wilding’s fiction. Past value under threat is the theme of  Academia Nuts (2002), where a cast of characters, easily identifiable as Sydney University colleagues, crouch in the common room, increasingly depressed about the state of things on campus. Wilding sent a copy of the novel to Laurie Taylor, an old friend and regular reviewer for the Times Higher Education Supplement: he enjoyed it so much he wrote it up in that sober British journal, even though it had never been published in that country. Academia Nuts was followed by Superfluous Men (2009): now the common-room commoners have all retired, or been retired as they would see it. A deep vein of betrayal by modern authority runs through this novel, a theme that has come to dominate Wilding’s work.

The transition from campus fiction to crime fiction seemed  a natural development. In National Treasure (2007) a mild-mannered would-be writer named Plant sees a man being beaten up and takes him to the Sydney home of successful novelist Scobie Spruce, known as ‘the National Treasure’; the attack-victim is his research assistant, with the remarkable name of Fullalove. Spruce and wife are rather dismissive of the wounded man, so he resigns, and Plant takes the job.

He works with Spruce on a novel about medical malpractice, and also spends time with Spruce’s glamorous wife, a former Euro-hippy who enjoys smoking dope with her husband, or indeed anyone. Unlike the generally miserable scholars of Academia Nuts and Superfluous Men, Spruce faces personal threats: his rival Tuscan Bayes has accused him of stealing his data. Spruce loses control and engages in deranged public behaviour – he strips off while speaking, for example, but manages some image rehabilitation through claiming to be at one with Indigenous people.

This is as much satire as crime fiction. Although Bayes has, along the way, started paying Plant for information, the anti-hero is not yet a private detective. By the second book, The Prisoner of Mount Warning (2010), he has become one, entering fully what Wilding in a recent essay for Quadrant called ‘The Murky Depths of Crime Fiction’.

Here Plant is called to a journalists’ long lunch and employed to track the missing Charles Dorritt, who, despite his Dickensian name, was a postgraduate looking into the ‘alternative’ style of 1970s life and thought. The journalists have odd names too. Their tough leader is the argumentative, business-oriented Huxter, whose dubious off-siders include ‘Ghostly’ Sperrit and the handsome but grim Angela Dark. It becomes clear they want Dorritt to stop researching their past activities – which are also criticised by the recurrent commentator Fullalove. Back in the protest days they worked on a Balmain-based journal Rights, by enemies hopefully called Last Rights; then they all moved on to Nimbin, as you did then. Plant investigates and finds Dorritt ‘the eternally uncool’, and others from the magazine like the under-dressed and mushroom-loving Rosa.

Plant, when not in a hazed daze, suspects that Huxter is a major spook and the other journalists are juniors in the spectral trade, but there is little in the way of private detection, clues, or discoveries in the novel – Wilding later admitted he forgot to insert a murder. Even so, the writing is fast and interesting, moving between sharply, if briefly, realised contexts — Plant once hears ‘a parliament of frogs’ — to lengthy, ironic, semi-revealing exchanges of one-liners in the classic noir tradition.

In his Quadrant essay Wilding explains he always read this genre, preferring educated espionagers like Le Carré, and mystery-writers with some message as well as the crime plot, such as G. K. Chesterton, ‘a writer of ideas’. The essay stresses the non-Father Brown novel The Man Who Knew Too Much (1922), said to deal with ‘mysteries of which the solution can never be made public, crimes which can never be published or punished, because the perpetrators are too highly placed – they are all senior politicians, high-ranking military, cosmopolitan financiers’. Wilding concludes Chesterton had ‘an appalled awareness of the way we live now’. As the Plant series develops, a political and personally-threatening version of such critique is the dominating theme. This is  implied by the choice of Mount Warning, a real place, as the location of Dorritt’s imprisonment, interrogation and torture by the modern media people.

By the time The Magic of It was published in 2011, Plant had  a business card, which reads ‘Research Assistance. Investigative Reporting’. Though he can seem ‘a bit tarnished and somewhat fearful’ this non-tough guy is hired by Professor Archer Major while on a visiting fellowship from Oxford to Sydney University: he is receiving threatening letters. It is Plant’s Glebe bookshop-owning friend Mac Arber, naturally known as Macabre, who introduces him to this person with the same masterly initials. Wilding likes playing with initials – Plant is Keith, but surely not a KP nut?

He has another long lunch at the under-used, over-wine-cellared staff club (a Sydney University touch) with his ex-supervisor and friends, themselves feeling like ‘superfluous men’. The postgraduate Plant never located an academic job: he is one of the new ‘lost generation’ –  all too common around the campuses and their bars. Among the staff group is Revill, hostile to Major and the prime suspect, a bitter Brit who has not been promoted. Plant finds Major himself to be somewhat dubious; at first an expert in Anglo-Saxon magical ‘charms’ he slid into the modern comfort of ‘Cultural Studies’. Plant hears that Major was active in the protest period, but an informant in the library thinks Major was some form of conspirator.

While the plot does thicken, the authority-conspiracy theme is not developed here; instead emphasis falls on the exotic notion of hallucinogenic forms of espionage. Revill recounts to Plant that M. R. James, the great ghost-story writer, was a pillar of Eton and Cambridge, and that the CIA hierarchy mostly belonged to the ‘Skull and Crossbones’ club at Yale: he thinks Major in his turn is involved in such ‘psychic spying’. This conversation is held in Oxford, where the recently returned Major has summoned Plant. Menacing letters are still arriving – and Revill is still suspected of being the malign epistolarist.

After a good deal of droll satire on Oxford and its dons, and much straight mockery of England as well, Wilding turns to a full-on mystery ending. Revill dies at High Table dinner; his internet history reveals the hallucinogen he seems to have over-consumed (but as he thought the internet a form of surveillance, that may be forgery). The strange and paranoid ideas that Wilding and Fullalove share suddenly seem to be coming into credible focus. Then Major himself dies from an opiate; his wife Lucy shared it but, she claims, had also drunk so much she vomited and survived.

What can we and Plant believe? Were Revill and Major too open about the conspiracies they debated and so became victims of the secret state? Or was Lucy avenging Revill on her husband? And sending the letters too? Like Chesterton with the official bodies, we never receive a clear report. Lucy sets off with Plant back to Australia: he is still both tarnished and fearful, and now thoroughly puzzled about the threatening forces that seem to be pursing them.

Asian Dawn (2013) opens, as has become usual, with Plant answering a phone and taking a job. Professor Ackerman, who mixes Asian history and political economics at the University of Queensland, is missing, apparently in Thailand. His editorial partner Professor Ghosh will later say that three-quarters of the scholars in Asian Studies are spies, but like many of the bleak assertions in these novels, this is never actually confirmed in Ackerman’s case.

Plant finds the red-light district of Bangkok ‘a vision of hell’. He travels to a rural area with new Thai journalist friend descended from farmers who face starvation as profits are creamed off by exploiters in the army and government. Plant finds Ackerman’s research publishing series has been taken over by ‘Legal and Visual International’, which is run by an unpleasant American named Starr. Word play is present, Plant linking LAVI to the Latin for ‘I have laundered’. Political critique develops: through Starr Wilding vents suspicion of American surveillance in Asia, and by extension Australia. Back in Sydney, Plant, again with Fullalove, will discover in one library reference book that Starr was in special ops in Vietnam, and in another that the Australian Defence department funded Ackerman’s department of Asian Studies.

But as before nothing is really resolved. Plant finds Ackerman with a glamorous Thai singer named both Anna and Imelda: Plant is drugged, they leave, and the next he hears is that Ackerman is dead and Mrs Ackerman  to Plant the Ackerwoman, has been arrested for killing Starr. She was pursuing him for data on her husband and reported him hanging in his hotel room. These strange events are resolved in a fine action-resolution that deserves to be kept secret. Plant is off the job and back on the farm — so he drives to Sydney to consult Fullalove, whose room has become a sea of books. As before, all ends puzzlingly. In whodunit terms there is an explanatory choice, between the murderous wife, this novel’s version of the Chandleresque tough teasing dame, and Fullalove’s offer of strange amorphous political forces: the narrative seems undecided which wickedness to believe in.

A similar structure is used in In the Valley of the Weed (2016): here a PhD student at Sydney who writes for magazines about the internet and security has been suspended from the university for publishing racist and sexist comments in his emails — in his 2018 essay on crime fiction Wilding notes the overlap with a modern university’s use of its power to suspend someone ‘for incorrect thoughts’, as Wilding holds occurred in the Professor Barry Spurr case of 2016.

Fullalove remains the puzzling anti-authority authority, and his mounds of books show a new scheme. He has gathered classics of troublesome inquiry; Hitler, Marx, Fanny Hill, De Quincey, Graham Greene and many more. If you buy or borrow such books now, your name is apparently recorded, so Fullalove profits by selling them secretly — surveillance is like Prohibition he says, you can make money out of it. He is a Wildingesque self-parody – and Plant is jolted when Professor Oates, the apparently all-knowing, and possibly all-managing, authority figure, says Fullalove ‘is not a worry’.

Plant knows the missing post-graduate had a place on the Gold Coast, so heads for Nimbin to search, having himself now moved into hippy-land on a five-acre farm — all lantana he says. The plot is more like a standard mystery than usual, with this novel’s Oates postgraduate Vicars found dead from poisonous mushrooms, leaving a charming but increasingly dubious wife. But the context soon moves into Wilding’s familiar literary and political worlds. Vicars knew a lot about the manipulations of the drug-related past, and some of the dubious radical journalists from The Prisoner of Mount Warning reappear. Additionally, Vicars had a literary agent who brings writerly irony into the novel — her name is Julia Orange so of course she is known as Agent Orange. As before, the dark forces Professor Oates typifies may be the basis of all the menace — or is it just the hard-drinking widow, with her handsome dog?

The ambiguous patterns of Plant’s world and Wilding’s questions reappear in the liveliest entry into the series so far, Little Demon (2018). The phone summons Plant to what seems a simple theft: Rock Richmond – another novelist with a melodramatically macho name – has had his computer stolen from his grand Byron Bay mansion, along with the flash-drive back-up he unwidely left beside it. The book he was working on was about the real events of the hippy resistance days. Plant thinks it looks like a one-off specialist crime, and suspects police or security are behind it.

He consults his old friend and mercantile acquaintance Max the Nimbin dope-dealer, who says Richmond was around in the 1970s and wrote pieces about the new culture for official-seeming bodies. But the Richmond theft is only the start: politics open up as Max goes on, opining that the whole hippy Nimbin process was managed by the army, that the settlements were led by ex-army officers from good schools, allowing them to gather both draft-dodgers and potentially treacherous ex-soldiers into their inspectorial care.

As Plant thinks about this at home, the human conspiracy theorist arrives, with many books and files. Fullalove  is on an important job and must stay there. He says Richmond is a lightweight writer from a rich family and expensive school and they decide to hear him speak at the Byron Bay Writers’ Festival – but suddenly learn from Mrs R that her husband has been found shot dead in his car, at Cape Byron’s fine lookout.  As in a proper private eye story she hires Plant to inquire, and the novel cranks up, especially in terms of past mysteries.

Fullalove announces he has suddenly realised that what the settlement army officers were doing in the past was testing ‘Survivalism’, seeing how, after a disaster, people with only the land to live by would cope, physically and psychically. This was a post-nuclear issue for ‘government, the military and the secret services’, and he claims they established stay-behind groups with arms dumps in the bush. These would recurrently explode and cause bushfires – and the dumps also  generated what he describes as the paramilitary character of the National Parks and Wildlife Service.

At Richmond’s wake Plant meets the dead man’s girlfriend, the graceful and perhaps over-friendly Madimi Lee. Also in mourning is the sombre figure of Professor Toby Oates – Richmond was yet another of his postgraduates – who is now writing reports on the hippy world for an unnamed source. The shadowy manipulator who is behind so much mischief in this author’s novels, must, if we recall Wilding’s seventeenth-century learning, remind us of that period’s anti-papist fake who brought many to death, Titus Oates.

As the genre would have us expect, Plant sees more of Madimi, socially and personally, but he also finds Richmond was indeed in the kind of rifle club so suspected by Fullalove: but its organiser, ex-officer Jake Illingworth, says, perhaps indicating his involvement, that he has little to tell Plant. Then Fullalove disappears, which is a great relief to Plan, now comfortably at home — but the master analyst melodramatically reappears, saying he went to interview Illingworth and was imprisoned by him,: then he heard Madimi arrive, shoot Illingworth and write a note confessing to Richmond’s murder on his computer. In this version Illingworth and Richmond have themselves turned from state agents to private dissenters, planning to expose in the new book the state control of the hippy world, and were both neutralised by the hostile, if beautiful, agent. To look into this whole project was what brought Fullalove north to rural discomfort, and he now gladly disappears back to the city.

As usual, Plant and the reader are left with a causatory puzzle – human malice or state management? Was the spook narrative true? And there is, as usual, a tough wife to suspect, rich aggressive barrister Mrs Richmond. The novel offers a fine balance of possible causes. The astute reader, unlike Plant, will notice a recurrent helicopter, which  may suggest the overarching presence of a modern world of deep deception, corruption and surveillance. The story seems, like so much of Wilding’s recent work, to look towards disturbing revelations about the recent past, which we might not understand unless we work, and think, and doubt, very hard – and consult sages such as the smoke-drenched Max and Fullalove.

Some might cough at the underlying meanings the author explores in these stories, though they are certainly unusual and innovative. But this spirit of innovative inquiry has a place in the national culture. Wilding himself has considered earlier crime fiction in Australia. In his essay for Quadrant he cited Marcus Clarke and his short stories, which include ‘an opium vision, a nightmare, a mesmeric vision, an adventure among savage tribes, and explorations of the occult’ – if the savage tribes are the neoliberals and the occult is the psychic, then Plant has done all those things himself. Wilding also notes that E. W. Hornung, Conan Doyle’s brother-in-law, drew on his early, health-focused years in the Riverina to mesh crime and false respectability. His Anglo-gentry crooks in Australia – both the visiting Raffles and the settled-here Stingaree the Gentleman Bushranger — resemble the respectable but also dubious professors and postgraduates who lead the Wilding action. Finally he notes how Peter Corris had from 1980 on put ‘life in the old formula’ of the American private eye, moving up and down the coast, never over-written, evoking what is in this country ‘characteristic, defining, memorable’.

From this rich soil must also grow the issue of the detective’s name being Plant. Back in the 1970s Wilding’s column for the alert, even radical, Nation Review was entitled ‘Paranoia’ and delved into possible modes of contemporary thought-control, even at times suggesting material was being ‘planted’ upon authors like himself. In the novels Plant seems like his author’s own implantation, not just as the source of a reviewers’ joke, but a seed from which information might slowly burgeon before the reader’s eye.

In this spirit Wilding’s work can be linked to other criminographic arrivals from Oxford: Professor J. I. M. Stewart was in Adelaide in the late 1930s when he started the English-oriented clue-puzzle series written as ‘Michael Innes’, and Robert Barnard who lectured for a while in Armidale, made it the setting for his first mystery story, Death of an Old Goat (1974). They both returned to Europe.

As a continuing resident Wilding might also be linked to Australia’s own tertiary tradition of criminography. There was Murder Pie, edited by Jean Ranken and Jane Clunies-Ross, the Australian imitation of the London Detection Club’s multi-authored The Floating Admiral (1931): it opens with death in the modest pond by Sydney University’s fine grounds, since grandiosely renamed Lake Northam for Olympic yachting gold medallist Sir William Northam. Then the sisters Anne and Margot Goyder wrote among their many ‘Margot Neville’ mysteries Come Thick Night (1951), focusing on a Sydney University student, while Faculty of Murder (1961), by the skilful June Wright (whose work is now finally being brought back into print) occurs in and outside a Melbourne University women’s college. Pat Carlon’s Death by Demonstration (1970) was about a student murdered on a Vietnam demonstration – Fullalove and Major were probably watching from the pavement, but Revill and Ackerman and even Dorritt would surely have been out on the street.

Continuing this national campus mystery tradition so conversationally and in so insistently revelatory a way, Wilding’s well-settled series with professors, postgraduates and penetrating perceptions of the political past should with good fortune continue its movement up and down the coast and in and out of the puzzling and frightening past and the equally dialectical present. Surely Plant will bloom again.