Hot off of his Ned Kelly Award win for the twisty crime novel The Wife and the Widow, Christian White dives deep into late 1980s suburbia for his third novel Wild Place. While his first novel The Nowhere Child travelled to America and The Wife and the Widow journeyed to an island off the coast of Victoria, Wild Place is located and stays in suburbs outside of Melbourne. A place that one of the teenage characters refers to as a “snowglobe” at one point. The ‘Wild Place’ of the title is a small plot of remnant bushland in the middle of the suburb but by the end of the book, readers may reconsider how this description might be applied to the suburb as a whole.
The book opens with the last encounter of Tracie Reed with her mother before she goes missing. It then cuts to protagonist Tom Witter at the local neighbourhood watch meeting a few weeks later being asked to put out fliers about Tracie’s disappearance. Tom, who grew up in the area and is now a teacher at the local high school, becomes obsessed with trying to find out what happened to Tracie. Along the way he re-encounters old school connections who also never moved away – bullies who tormented him in high school to an old flame who is now a detective on the Tracie Reed case. When Tom focusses attention on a goth, metal loving teen as a suspect and points Tracie’s father at him, things get decidedly out of control.
White has always been interested in family secrets and the lengths people will go for their family. This theme is again a focus of Wild Place – whether it be Tom’s relationship with his two sons, one of whom is moving away and the other pulling away, or Owen Reed’s fixation on finding out what happened to his daughter. White does well to make the reader feel like they have worked out the answer before it is revealed, only to pull the rug out from under them. To make all of these twists work, though, White has to hold back critical information from the reader. When hidden truths are revealed, and most importantly who knew those truths and when, it can be more a case of readers saying: “why didn’t I know that before”, rather than: “of course, I should have worked that out”.
Wild Place works when it lights a fire under reader’s conception of suburbia – playing on the fact that everyone has skeletons in their closets and is carrying secrets, and of the potential weaponization of ideas like neighbourhood watch (still very big in the late 1980s timeframe of the novel). It also asks classic crime-fiction moral questions of characters who on the surface consider themselves good or honourable (even when they may be lying to themselves about that) and who start to descend down a darker path in order to right a perceived wrong. Together with White’s love of twists and reverses, this combination delivers another engaging crime novel with broader questions on its mind.