Hardy Plant, Tolerates Danger

Michael Wilding, The Magic of It (Arcadia/Press On, 2011), $24.95

Michael Wilding’s latest fiction, his eighteenth, is a departure from his earlier work as he slips into the genre of the private investigator, here aptly named Plant.

From the moment the phone rings, we know that Plant is in for trouble. The third sentence of the book, “He hated it when it rang for the trouble it invariably brought,” is followed by another that indicates the sort of contrary character Plant is going to be: “He hated it when it failed to ring, for its failure to bring work, or joy, or diversion, or even just the reassurance that there was a world out there that cared about him.”

When the voice at the other end says “Macabre” in a slow and sinister manner, it presages a strange and twisted tale of international intrigue, government conspiracies, and ruthless academic backstabbing.

Mac Arber, a sleazy bookshop owner, has rung Plant on behalf of an academic acquaintance called Dr Archer Major, a writer of books on magic, who wants Plant to find out who has been sending him anonymous notes which may threaten his chances of being appointed to a professorship at Oxford University. It would seem to be a perfect job for Plant, an academic turned PI.

Alice-like, Plant suddenly finds himself in a strange world whose inhabitants deflect direct questions and suggest more than they say. Plant is confused, but he goes along for the ride because he is a good listener, accepting anything, including insults, with outward equanimity. Before long, he is caught up in a scheme of such proportions that even the most paranoid of all the characters in the book can hardly believe it.

Plant discovers that there are several categories of candidates for the anonymous notes sent to Major, including former students pressing sexual harassment charges, as well as academics jealous of his success, or seeking revenge for past slights, or rivals for the post.

When Plant goes to Oxford University at Major’s bidding, he meets up with his old colleagues Dennis and Tony, who have the same complaints as their Australian cousins, the retired academics Wilding so humorously described in Academia Nuts and Superfluous Men. Plant is made to feel an outsider, but he is “happy enough to be left at the edge as an observer”, a position that attracts confessions and admissions.

Plant suffers from existential anxiety, not sure whether he is paid to “puzzle. Or solve puzzles”, and Major’s case has him baffled. His greatest weapon is that he has time to wait and listen and ask discreet questions, mostly about his client, Archer Major, not least because Major himself is not forthcoming.

Plant learns that Major’s early university studies in Old English led him to work in code-breaking, and that Major is connected in some deep way to the establishment. He also learns that Paul Revill, a colleague of Plant’s Oxford acquaintances, is very bitter about his missed opportunities. Revill blames Major for his failure to get academic appointments and claims Major was practising “black magic” on him as part of an international secret service test program to weed out dissidents and troublemakers.

Major tells Plant he believes Revill was responsible for the anonymous notes, which have followed him from Sydney to Oxford and coincide with Revill’s recent arrival in Oxford from Sydney. But Plant has other thoughts, and Revill’s logic makes sense to him: 

Revill had erected an all-encompassing, omnipresent structure. On the basis that Major’s books on magic revealed nothing about the practicalities and practice of magic, Revill postulated that Major had kept the real information secret and reported it to some government agency. On the basis of the lack of printed comment on the use of magic by the world’s intelligence services, he postulated that magic was a top secret operational strategy. It was an extraordinary logical paradox. The negative made positive. Creation ex nihilo. But Plant could see that it might be true. 

Plant is daunted by the prospect of his mission. He is looking for the author of the anonymous notes, but “Investigating the ancient lore of the secret state was not part of his brief” and he would prefer to let it lie.

Like his predecessors Inspector Clouseau, Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot and even Philip Marlowe, Plant’s ruminations lead us to the solving of the crime—in this case a murder, an attempted murder and a suicide—and a conclusion that ends with questions much larger than those Plant initially set out to investigate.

Wilding blends his wit with the comic and the bizarre in a novel which surprises by its twists and turns. His dialogue reminds one of the absurdist plays of Ionesco, or the verbal wit of a Tom Stoppard, and these add up to an intriguing, existentialist comedy with just a touch of pathos.

Readers of Michael Wilding will enjoy his venture into fresh territory immensely. 

Irina Dunn, a former independent senator for New South Wales, is the author of The Writer’s Guide: A Companion to Writing for Pleasure or Publication.

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