Christian White’s latest psychological thriller Wild Place (Affirm Press 2021) continues to cement his place as one of Australia’s most compelling contemporary crime writers. The writing is smart, clever and taut, the plot is filmic in scope, and the characters are engaging and authentic.
Set in 1989, a local teen goes missing from a sleepy, ‘white picket fence’ type of suburb, a place of well-lit homes, neighbourhood gatherings and backyard family barbeques, peopled with sociable, educated parents and close-knit children. The local houses all back onto a natural bush space (the ‘wild place’) which is loved by adventurous kids and avid dog-walkers.
The book opens with the disappearance of adolescent Tracie Reed. Teacher Tom Witter becomes obsessed with the girl’s whereabouts, enlisting the help of the neighbourhood watch group, along with Tracie’s father, Owen (estranged from her mother, Nancy). With rumours of satanic rituals invoked by local kids, Tom believes he holds the key to the missing girl and begins his own investigation. But in a classic suburban crime development, the more Tom prods and pokes, the more layers and secrets he uncovers; dark and disturbing truths and the consequences of unknown actions begin to unravel the stories and motivations of all involved.
At the heart of this story lies the question: why do good people do bad things? This is explored through the guilt, lies and violence that become apparent as the narrative continues, examining moral territory. White does a great job of misdirection – of leading the reader in one direction, then suddenly pivoting, all the while keeping the reader on their toes as we follow at first one lead and then another. This book does not have the huge, clever ‘twist’ of White’s previous novels, and if as a reader, you are expecting that twist, then it might be slightly disappointing that it doesn’t eventuate. But if you go into this book as you would any other crime novel, it is satisfying on many levels. White’s previous books have been SO successful that this is an unfortunate consequence! (In my opinion, the twist in The Wife and the Widow is one of the best ever). But that is a small criticism. Certainly, if this is your first Christian White crime book, you won’t be disappointed.
And to give credit where credit is due, the resolution does contain some very clever and unexpected events, with White keeping the reader guessing right up until the very last page. He also finishes the book with a deliciously ambiguous last line … that changes the whole perspective of the reader’s assessment of the ending. White’s experience as a screenwriter is very evident throughout Wild Place and it is easy to imagine this as a movie.