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Peter Corris: A Cascade of Fiction

The Tally

Charles Dickens died at his desk in 1870, aged 58, with his crime novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, unfinished. Robert B. Parker also went out in harness – in 2010, aged 77 – so that there would be no more adventures (by his hand anyway) for the private detective Spenser and his peerless companion, Hawk, although at least readers were spared any more of the insufferable Susan Silverman. Michael Dibdin only reached sixty. The tally of his Aurelio Zen crime novels halted at eleven. Philip Kerr was two years older, his death coinciding with the publication of the thirteenth outing of Bernie Gunther, Greeks Bearing Gifts (2018) (a fourteenth novel is happily in the publisher’s hands). The career of Australia’s foremost crime writer (to call him the Godfather confuses the subject with the craft), Peter Corris, ended in 2017, the year he turned 75, because increasing problems with his sight (caused by diabetes) meant that he could no longer write.

Corris left almost 90 books, in a variety of genres that no Australian author has rivalled. Besides four fictional series (all to do with crime to different degrees), and several historical novels, he wrote collaborative biographies (with Philip Nitzsche, Fred Hollows, John Sinclair and Ray Barrett), true crime, sport (especially boxing and golf), academic works of Pacific history and an autobiography, Sweet & Sour: A Diabetic Life (2000).

He is best known for the more than forty books – novels, short story collections and omnibuses – featuring the private detective and anatomist of modern Australia, Cliff Hardy. Compare this with two of the longest Australian crime series: 29 titles featuring Arthur Upfield’s part-Aboriginal detective, Bony, and twenty for Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher. Numerous other authors have been tempted into series around a central hero: none has as yet been sustained for as long at such a high level of accomplishment as Corris’s Hardy.

Fittingly Corris’s last book was a Cliff Hardy novel: Win, Lose or Draw. Creator and character have each taken their last bow. Unlike Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, there will be no return. Hardy can boast not only longevity (the manipulation of the age of this Korean War veteran through a series nearly four decades long is a matter that Corris handled with insouciance), but more capacity to endure physical and emotional hardship than even Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe (surely the greatest influence on his depiction of Hardy). Hardy survived divorce, gaol, frequent periods of involuntary unconsciousness, being shot, open-heart surgery, the loss – through cancer and murder – of loved ones, short periods in gaol, disqualification as a detective. Nonetheless, as Corris has written, ‘Cliff finished up happy, and so have I’

Academic

The Dying Trade by Peter Corris book cover

The Dying Trade, Text Classics edition, published 2012.

There was a long foreground of nearly four decades in Corris’s life before the first appearance of Cliff Hardy in The Dying Trade (1980). Corris was born at Stawell in western Victoria on 8 May 1942. When he was five, the family moved to Melbourne. In the 1950s Corris attended Melbourne High School before studying Arts at the University of Melbourne. His initial post-graduate research led to an MA at the recently-opened Monash University. This was published by the Institute of Aboriginal Studies in Canberra. Its title was ‘Aborigines and Europeans in Western Victoria from First Contact to 1860’. Evidently committed to an academic career, Corris undertook a PhD in Pacific history at the Australian National University: ‘Passage, Port and Plantation: a History of Solomon Island labour migration 1870-1914’. He contributed to other books on Pacific history in 1973 and 1977 before publishing, with Roger Keesing, some of the fruits of that research, Lightning Meets the West Wind: the Malaita Massacre (1981). (Nearly a decade later there would be a fictional issue as well, Naismith’s Dominion, 1990). Corris left Canberra to take up a one-year lectureship at Melbourne University, in a theory-dominated time that he disliked. Next year, his friend and fellow historian Don Watson drove him for an interview at the Gippsland Institute of Advanced Education. Corris secured another job, but one that was no more to his satisfaction. On a visit to the United States in 1970, he was taken by the relatively uncommon notion then of writing Australian detective fiction. That was the course that he would ultimately follow. Disenchanted with academic life, Corris began a career of full-time writing, venturing especially into fiction.

The number of Australian academics who have also been or have become poets is extensive and mainly distinguished. The line reaches back to Christopher Brennan around the turn of the twentieth century, extends to A.D. Hope and James McAuley after the second world war and reaches down to the present. Academic authors of fiction have been notably scarcer. The Scot, J.I.M. Stewart, was professor of English at the University of Adelaide from 1935-45, but is better known for the detective novels that he began to write – as ‘Michael Innes’ – during that decade. Notoriously, Stewart prefaced his 1940 Commonwealth Literary Fund lectures on Australian literature by declaring that ‘unfortunately they have neglected to provide any literature – I will lecture therefore on D.H. Lawrence’s Kangaroo’. David Malouf’s academic career at Sydney University ran from 1968-77. He was first published as a poet, but fiction has been the mainstay of his writing since Johnno (1975). Manning Clark, a novelist manqué, published a volume of autobiographical short fiction, Disquiet and Other Stories (1969). More recently, historian Peter Cochrane’s first novel appeared: The Making of Martin Sparrow (2018). Compared with the scores of poets working as academics in the seventies, Corris would have joined a short list of novelists.

Full-time Writing

In 1979-80 Corris was literary editor of the National Times, based in Sydney. He has described how he ‘worked his way slowly north to New South Wales where he has lived since 1976’. Sydney was a city that very quickly claimed his heart. Indeed, from his fictional entrance, Hardy is nostalgic for a lost or disappearing Sydney that his creator had not yet had the opportunity extensively to know. The Dying Trade, the first Cliff Hardy novel, was published in 1980. In a 2016 blogpost for the Newtown Review of Books, Corris wrote that the novel was ‘made an orphan when the American publisher McGraw Hill cancelled its Australian fiction list, of which my book was one of the two published’. Fortunately – he thinks because of ‘its novelty, the first indigenous, as it were, Australian crime novels in decades – it got positive reviews from all quarters and was picked up, along with the next two in the series, as a paperback by Pan’. Allen & Unwin would take over the series shortly afterwards.

A cascade of fiction followed, as Corris committed himself – and by extension his family – writer Jean Bedford and their three daughters – to full-time authorship. In the 1980s there were ten more Hardy titles after the first – eight novels and two short story collections, Heroin Annie (1984) and Man in the Shadows (1988). Nor was this all. In this decade Corris was writing three series concurrently. Besides Hardy, he and Bill Garner invented (with an ABC television series in mind) the spy Ray (of course ‘Creepy’) Crawley. Three books featuring him appeared in 1988 alone: Pokerface, The Baltic Business and The Kimberley Killing. The year before had seen the debut of Richard Browning, a ne’er-do-well hero in Beverley Hills Browning and Box Office Browning.

The decade ended with the historical novel that Corris regards as his finest work, The Gulliver Fortune (1989). Its genesis lay in a story told by a technician who was fitting gas pipes in Corris’s Leichhardt home. The story was of a lost Turner masterpiece and of the search for it by members of a family dispersed around the world, Corris ‘found it exhilarating to write an historical novel in the way I’d imagined those I’d admired – Henry Treece, Georgette Heyer, George Shipway’. His agent, Rosemary Cresswell, sold the manuscript to the American firm Transworld Publishing for a large advance. Ruefully, Corris reflected in a 2015 blogpost that ‘the advance was my biggest payout since The Empty Beach and I was buoyant, thinking this could be my “breakthrough” book’. He was 47. There were good reviews in Australia, but neither an English edition nor a film. The disappointment did not deter Corris from historical fiction. The Gulliver Fortune was succeeded the next year by Naismith’s Dominion. That was at the beginning of a decade when Corris, as he passed through his 50s, worked at a hectic pace that no Australian author has surpassed.

In the 1990s he published 27 works of fiction alone. Besides Naismith’s Dominion, there were four Crawley titles, the full set of three Luke Dunlop novels, six for Browning and eleven featuring Hardy. Two further historical novels were set in inland Australia, away from the littoral that Corris and his characters prefer: The Brothers Craft (1992) (set in the country around Broken Hill that he first visited in the late 1960s after the break-up of his first marriage) and Wimmera Gold (1994). In 1991 – with the assistance of his admired ophthalmologist subject – Corris wrote Fred Hollows: An Autobiography. The book sold more than 100,000 copies and a portion of the proceeds was donated to the Fred Hollows Foundation. Corris’s collaboration with John Sinclair produced Fighting for Fraser Island (1994), a campaign that Sinclair had successfully led against proposed sand-mining that had the support of the National Party government of Joh Bjelke-Petersen.

Some international comparisons with Corris’s output are illuminating – and daunting. Of the 500-odd works by the Belgian writer Simenon (no figure has been agreed) the Paris detective Jules Maigret was the hero of 76 novels and 28 stories. Honoré de Balzac’s big decade was the 1830s. Let the figures speak: nineteen novels, ten novellas, seventeen short stories and three plays.

The exertions of the 1990s, and his worsening eyesight, forced some economies of labour on Corris. Crawley made his last appearance, and first for six years, in The Vietnam Volunteer (2000), a book published from Lismore by the Southern Cross University Press. Thereafter, the only series that Corris kept going was Cliff Hardy’s. The final books – nineteen more of them – were published from Lugarno (2001) to Win Lose Or Draw (2017). Non-fiction works in this last period (from Corris’s late 50s to his mid 70s) included the autobiography, Sweet and Sour, a work of true crime, Mad Dog: William Cyril Moxley and the Moorebank Killings (2011) and a collaboration with the Dying with Dignity campaigner, Dr Philip Nitzsche, Damned If I Do (2013). The words stopped, though clearly with reluctance, a sentiment tempered with a rightful sense of how much he had achieved, for so long. A sampling of some facets of Corris’s career follows.

Australia’s Flashman

The anti-hero of ‘Box Office’ Browning (1987) and seven more books to come, apparently died in California in August 1984. The Pasadena Standard reported that Richard Browning was ‘believed to have been born in Australia. He enjoyed modest and erratic success as a film actor from the 1920s until the 1970s but has lived in obscurity since’. Thus ‘Box Office’ was Browning’s ironical soubriquet. According to the Introduction, it happened that Corris was ‘in Los Angeles researching a book on Australians in Hollywood’ when he came upon 99 cassette tapes, dictated by Browning, and stored in an Old Grandad whisky box. Transcribed and edited by Corris, this purported to be a ‘history’, and its instalments come with footnotes to the real events and people with whom Browning was engaged, often nefariously. The not-so-distant model for an enterprise of this fictional kind is the Flashman Papers, ‘edited’ by George Macdonald Fraser, a series that began in 1969 and ended in 2005.

The parallels are clear, but not over-taxed. Flashman (whom Fraser expropriated from Thomas Hughes’s Tom Brown’s School Days, 1857), was expelled from Rugby for drunkenness. His rich father then bought him an army commission. The decades of foreign adventures that followed saw this self-confessed coward participate in British colonial and other countries’ wars around the world. Flashman was knighted, and won a Victoria Cross. Browning is expelled from Dudleigh Grammar for cheating at cricket (one of Flashman’s exploits, incidentally, was to invent the hat trick). His father, ‘Wild Bill’ Browning, found gold as a prospector and a further fortune from the invention of a piece of mining equipment. His often reproved and disappointing son drifts out of the parental orbit into the nascent Australian film industry. In common with Flashman, he is familiar with bedrooms and prisons. He, too, will be a traveller – often in flight – to France, South Arica, the United States, Canada, Britain, Ceylon and Mexico. Corris brings Browning on set with a brio that is largely sustained throughout the series.

The first of the historical figures to whom we are introduced is Les Darcy (a hero for such a boxing aficionado as Corris) whom Browning encounters in 1916 while at a film shoot by the Cook’s River. Many cameos will follow in this series. Browning next finds work at Watson’s Bay where Francis Longford is filming ‘The Mutiny of the Bounty’. He makes his first flight (from an unpaid hotel bill) and then pauses the narrative for a proleptic moment in which he looks forward to the wider film world that he will encounter: ‘Doug and Mary, that swine Flynn, good old David Niven’. In Browning’s present time the pace quickens; life becomes more hazardous. After a short spell in Long Bay Gaol, Browning cheekily assumes the names William Hughes (after the Prime Minister), deflowers the daughter of a ‘passionate Irish nationalist’, cons himself into the army by making a wrong bet on the outcome of the conscription referendum, becomes a sniper, deserts, makes his way through Basel to London. By this time, the novel is less than half done.

As a chauffeur in London, Browning drives Rudyard Kipling and Somerset Maugham. In Cape Town he shows off his riding skills and pleasures a woman whose husband has had his testicles shot off in the war. Back in Australia, Browning is involved in an early Ned Kelly film, shot in Coburg, before being forced to stow away for California. The next book was already in the works. Box Office Browning was also published in 1987. As the adventures keep coming (adventure is from the Latin: ‘about to happen’), Browning is coerced into the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, learns to fly and is thereafter contracted for work with Howard Hughes on ‘Hell’s Angels’. Later film roles in subsequent books will include ‘The Plainsman’ with Gary Cooper and Anthony Quinn, war-time propaganda, with his friend Peter Finch and Vivien Leigh in Ceylon for ‘Elephant Walk’, with James Dean in Mexico. Browning PI (1992) gives Corris the chance to pay homage to Raymond Chandler by giving him a walk-on part. The whole Browning enterprise seems to have given its author a deal of fun. At least through the 1980s and 1990s, he refused to depend upon Cliff Hardy alone.

Pokerface

The first of the Ray Crawley octet, Pokerface (1985) (by now, Corris’s publisher was Penguin), was ‘based on scripts for the ABC TV drama ‘Pokerface’ by Peter Corris and Bill Garner’. The latter will be given story-line credit throughout the series. The TV drama was released on 9 October 1986, and had a much shorter run than the novels, extending to just three episodes. Bruno Lawrence played Crawley as a former journalist working as an undercover agent for the Australian secret service. Unlike the circumstances of the perennial outsider, Cliff Hardy, we are taken inside an institution. As the series develops, Corris depicts the workings and especially the politics of what he calls the Federal Security Agency. When we meet him, ‘Crawley, as usual, was full of impatience and self-dislike; he was also half-full of bourbon’. Suspended, and then reinstated in Pokerface, Crawley will be Acting Director of the agency when we reach The Time Trap (1994), having some time since organised the death of one of his most venomous internal enemies.

For Pokerface and the next two Crawley books, The Baltic Business and The Kimberley Killing (both 1988), Crawley is based in Melbourne – no doubt Garner’s preference. In The Cargo Club (1990), he has relocated to Canberra where his sometimes estranged and politically reconstructed wife, Mandy, is undertaking a PhD in Sociology. This time Crawley’s assignment involves a return to the Pacific. Vitatavu is an island group between Fiji and Samoa. A former Anglo-French condominium, its phosphate riches have the Russians meddling. While Hardy intermittently enlists many professional helpers, not least in the police force, essentially he works alone. For Crawley, Corris provides a side-kick, the trouble-seeking agent, Graeme Huck. The verdict on their business on this occasion resonates throughout the series: ‘ambiguous results as always’. Certainly that is the case in next year’s instalment, The Azanian Action, where South African hitmen working for their security service BOSS, track down ANC supporters who have sought refuge in Australia. The safe house in Tasmania Circle turns out not to be (and lets Corris have a good quiet joke: this is the street where Manning Clark lived).

After the intense burst of Crawley novels – seven in nine years, apart from everything else that Corris was writing – he was benched after The Time Trap (1994), a book dedicated to the historian of espionage, Phillip Knightley. Six years later, the cover of The Vietnam Volunteer (200) announced ‘Ray Crawley Returns Based on a Story by Bill Garner Chief Writer Blue Heelers’. We are back in Canberra, during ‘the long ascendancy of the Labor government’. As Hardy had been, Crawley is a veteran, in his case of army intelligence during a tour of Vietnam that began early in 1969, in the course of which he learned some of the language. Now, to his chagrin, he is sent as a minder for a trade trip. This is, perhaps, the most complex of the Crawley stories, embroiling him unwittingly in a revenge mission and bringing him to the malign notice of Vietnamese police and intelligence services. Huck is on hand when needed, allowing Crawley these last words: ‘I survived’. Well – not into another novel.

To the Jeremiah Islands

Corris’s Hardy, Crawley and Browning sequences were punctuated by two significant historical fictions – The Gulliver Fortune and Naismith’s Dominion (1990). The latter draws directly on the historical monograph that Corris wrote with Roger Keesing, Lightning Meets the West Wind: the Malaita Massacre. In 1927, on Malaita, an island in the British Solomon Islands Protectorate, William Bell, the District Officer, and a number of his deputies were killed by Kwaio warriors who were incensed by the head tax imposed on them by colonial authorities. In the reprisals that followed, sixty or more of the Kwaio people were killed. Corris takes over the story wholesale, with some changes of name and a disingenuous disclaimer: ‘the Jeremiah Islands do not exist and the people whose lives and actions are portrayed here have never existed’. The Prologue imagines the genesis of the bloodshed that follows. In February 1908, the young Eglito watched the hanging of his father. Escaping, he swore that ‘his destiny was to test To’beili power’ against that of the British.

Corris invents a distant as well as a recent history for this imaginary place. Three thousand kilometres off the north-east coast of Australia, the islands were ‘discovered in the sixteenth century by a Spanish expedition seeking gold and human souls’. Then, after whalers had fished the waters, the islands provided (as Corris hearkens back to his PhD research) indentured labour for ‘the sugar farms of Queensland and the copra plantations of Fiji’. The eponymous hero, Will Naismith, is introduced with a putter in his hand. Golf is the only indulgence that the 48-year-old bachelor, teetotaller and Boer War veteran allows himself. The English-speaking cast also includes the foppish Resident Commissioner Major Ashley Price-Kane, Colin Clements, failed planter and now Burns Philp representative, Richard Webb, a Great War veteran and doctoral student of anthropology at Oxford (there are Balliol jokes), Keith Larke, Naismith’s deputy and Tom Birmingham, author of a popular adventure series, and his third wife Louise.

There are complicated back stories for some of them. This is a densely and deftly plotted novel. Its often terrifying action takes place on Murdo Island, ‘shaped like a bird with a thick body, a curving sharp-billed head, and a long, plumed tail’. Fomenting trouble there is not only the bounty killer, Eglito, in search of revenge, but a Lutheran pastor and Birmingham, who wants a scoop to rejuvenate his flagging career. Throw in (as Corris does) a cyclone, consternation at antipodean developments in the faraway Foreign Office in London, one of Naismith’s assistants who suddenly turns murderous, ‘he is possessed’, as well as the historical chain of events, and Naismith’s Dominion has its quota of perilous adventures as well as social and historical reflection. The sardonic epilogue – in which two characters at least get their due – completes one of Corris’s most accomplished works and justifies the high place that he gave to historical fiction among his own books.

Set Up, But Not For Long

Two years after Naismith’s Dominion, Corris began a fourth series. This one featured a disgraced former NSW Detective Senior Sergeant, Frank Carter. Now with a new identity – as Luke Dunlop – he is an undercover agent for a National Witness Protection Unit. The note about the author reveals that he ‘divides his time between Marrickville and Coledale on the Illawarra Coast’. Each is a location in Set Up, the first Luke Dunlop novel. In his new life, Dunlop has had to move with reluctance from Darlinghurst to Marrickville, and to undergo ‘a battery of psychological tests designed to assess a candidate’s suitability for a life in the shadows’. At the moment, his main client is Kerry Douglas Loew, ‘dog’, super grass, armed robber who – while in prison – married ‘Cassandra May Daniels, former prostitute turned hypnotherapist and aerobic instructor’ who has her own TV show. Corris is having his usual studied fun with the way we live now.

Thus his lens widens to include federal politics (‘the pretender won’), the inmates of the Special Purpose Unit at Long Bay gaol – ‘Informers, Crown witnesses, entrapment baits, agents provocateurs’ – other witness protection cases; a transsexual whose murder turns out to be part of a wider and murkier plot, besides ‘a Royal Commission witness under wraps, a relocated South Australian police corruption whistle-blower’. Throw in paedophiles and – this being a Peter Corris novel set in New South Wales – bent senior police and we have another of the acute anatomies of contemporary Australia that have distinguished his crime fiction. That combination has surely been Corris’s main and salutary influence on the next generation of Australian writers whom he influenced and inspired. There are personal difficulties as well in Set Up – a sexual relationship (almost from first sight) between Dunlop and Daniels that makes her more desperate not to have to make a life with Loew on his release, blackmail, the selling of witness protection information, together with episodes of violence that Corris manages with his usual brusque efficiency. There is a real sense of a second (or fourth) wind in Set Up. Unfortunately, this was not the case. Two more Dunlop novels appeared in the next two years: Cross Off (1993) and Get Even (1994), and then no more.

The Ages of Cliff Hardy

Without prejudice, it might be argued that where Cliff Hardy was concerned, his entry in The Dying Trade (1980) was his finest moment, no matter that more than forty appearances were to come. The private detective was  imagined with a brilliant economy. The Hardy business and the accompanying literary style seem fully formed from the start. ‘Booze’ is in the first line and Hardy never drinks as much again. His background is briskly sketched, but as the series unfolds this will prove to be the most durable of scaffolds. There were ‘two erratic years at university’, National Service during the Malayan Emergency, then work as an insurance investigator. Hardy is already divorced from his wife, Cyn. His mother had died at 45: ‘my drunken, diabetic mother who’d pounded a vampy piano in London pubs and queened it up on the Oronsay on the L10 scheme’. The staples of his work are ‘faded wives whose husbands had taken a walk or the small businessman with a payroll panic’. His rusting, trusty Falcon is parked at the back of a mate’s tattoo parlour. His rate is a $200 retainer and $60 per day.

The Hardy tour of Sydney now begins. First stop is Vaucluse, where ‘the sun always shines … and the residents think it vulgar to talk about the view’. His client is Bryn Gutteridge, and there the complications begin. Gutteridge’s sister, Susan, is a patient in the private clinic at Longueville of Dr Brave, who has ‘expensive tastes in … erotica. He gambles like a madman’. The Gutteridge father, Mark, a real estate developer with political and police connections, has committed suicide, perhaps because ‘he had files on everyone’. The matter of this story will – as often in the future – be institutional corruption. His investigations take Hardy to the Eight Bells in The Rocks, perhaps the site of the oldest pub in Sydney: ‘Griffo drank and fought there, and since Griffo drank and fought in every pub in The Rocks this is uncontestable’ (boxer Young Griffo was a prime subject of Corris’s Lords of the Ring, published in the same year as this novel). It is not long before Hardy is KOed  on the first of many occasions (two in this book for a start). Harry Tickener, here a youthful reporter but a mainstay of the series to come, gets on the case.

Before long we have – as the score is kept – ‘a bomb, a murder, a raid, a torturing and a fatal clash’. Hardy also kills someone on Australian soil. That tally will remain low. A story of incest is revealed and there is an exciting chase that leads to the climax in the Blue Mountains.

The start to this series was stuttering, as the book shifted from McGraw Hill to a Pan title, but there was a sufficiently warm public response to encourage Corris quickly to produce sequels. The first of these was White Meat. Rosemary Cresswell pitched the book to the director, Stephen Wallace, whose films included The Love Letters from Teralba Road (1977) and Stir (1980). It was not until the fourth Hardy book, and perhaps Corris’s most famous – The Empty Beach (1983) – that a film, the only Hardy film, would be made, in 1985.

By now Hardy is off the cigarettes and has been a private investigator for ten years. His age – about 40 – is the same as his creator’s. Though having cut back on drink, Hardy agrees to meet Mrs Marion Singer at the Regal Hotel, Bondi, not far from where her husband, John, had apparently vanished two years before. His businesses were taxis, hotels, ‘but the pinballs were the hard core at the end’. With racketeers vying for a casino licence (this is Sydney), Mrs Singer is hedging her bets: ‘John may not be dead’, or, ‘He suicided, it was an accident or he was murdered’. Other key serial characters are introduced. Hardy’s lodger is a final year dentistry student, Hildegarde, whose family left Germany for Palestine before finding its way to Australia. A couple of books later, and she will marry the man who becomes Hardy’s most loyal and long-suffering ally in the police force, Frank Parker, who currently holds the rank of Detective Sergeant. Harry Tickener is back, as is Hardy’s lawyer, Cy Sackville. The Hardy back story can now be lightly sketched. As a child, ‘I remember my father walking with me along that big, empty Maroubra beach while my mother was in the pub’. In Malaya, ‘I was more scared of showing I was scared’.

The next knockout soon follows, leading to Hardy’s capture by the criminal boss, Freddy Ward. In a comic surprise, Hardy escapes not just through violence, but with the assistance of a school teacher who is canvassing as a Labor candidate for the next state election. We cut back to the coast to a house of horrors at Clovelly, where ‘the people are living on bread, pet food and cheap wine’. Hardy soon finds himself imprisoned again, this time with the over-inquisitive sociologist Ann Winter. By the time he digs their way out, Parker has arrived. This was ‘a glue factory. They’ve been boiling down the senior citizens’. Newspapers soon find the headline: ‘The Black Hole of Clovelly’. The other, parallel business of the turf war over the casino licence is deftly wrapped up when Hardy spreads a story that causes thieves to fall out. Parker strains the new friendship when he meets Hardy in his beloved Glebe and tells him that it’s ‘all greyhounds and trendies as far as I’m concerned, and I don’t like either’.

What happens subsequently, as the book made its way to a film, is told in part in a blogpost by Corris on filming Cliff Hardy. Tim Read and John Edwards bought an option with the same idea that Stephen Wallace had had: cast Bryan Brown as Cliff Hardy. Corris wrote a number of drafts before he was replaced by Keith Dewhurst, who had written scripts for the British police series, Z Cars: ‘good choice, I thought and went overseas, adopting the Hemingway philosophy – take the money and run’. The resulting film, released in 1985, was judged by Corris to be a mess. Evidently Brown fell out with the director, Chris Thomson, ‘the female lead, supposed to be whippet-thin and feisty, was so when cast but was pregnant by the time of shooting and wore enveloping garments’. The film flopped. Someone whom Corris knew reckoned it would have been better titled The Empty Cinema. New Zealanders took an option on future Hardy books. Nothing eventuated: ‘Happily, option money is non-returnable’. Casting Paul Hogan was considered. The ABC, Corris continues, ‘was tossing up between a series featuring Hardy or one with Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne fisher. Silk stockings won out’. Neither fictional career was impeded.

In 1988, the eleventh Cliff Hardy volume, Man in the Shadows, comprised ‘a short novel and six stories’. The blurb (quoting Peter Pierce) assured purchasers that ‘there has been no more efficient, entertaining and amusing writer of detective fiction than Peter Corris’. The book was a stock-take of a kind: where were Corris and Hardy after nearly a decade together? The setting was contemporary: Peacock is opposition leader, the AIDS epidemic has begun, bodies are disposed of on Sydney building sites. Hardy and Corris had continued to age alongside each other, reaching their mid-40s. The usual criminal business was afoot: corruption – whether in a psychiatric clinic or in an illicit military adventure in New Caledonia or in the involvement of a rising Labor politician in illegal immigration and prostitution; a melancholy review of Hardy’s lost loves, in this instance Helen Broadway, who’d ‘finally made up her mind to go back to her husband and her kid on a full-time basis. Our six-monthly polygamous set-up hadn’t worked’. There are recollections of old cases and previous books: ‘Annie [Parker] was a heroin addict I’d had some dealings with a few years back’, while a visit to Woolloomooloo brings an old boxing hero back to mind: ‘Jimmy Carruthers grew up there and used to eat ice cream outside the pub while his mates were boozing. Jimmy was on his way to a world boxing title – a real one’. In the story ‘Box On’, and elsewhere, the name of a later champion, Jeff Fenech, will be an expletive for Hardy.

Chandler is thereabouts as well. Neither for the first nor the last time a chapter ends as a man enters a room with a gun in his hand. Reminiscences of Malaya surface; laments for a vanishing Sydney too. Of Bondi: ‘when I was young I’d come here to surf. Now they came to score – and surf, probably’. The terse wit of Hardy, whether in his reflections on the state of national and local affairs, or in abrasive repartee when faced with the police or other adversaries, never flags. Some of the short stories seem to be hastened towards their conclusions. The longer form suits Corris better; typically, his novels are divided into two 100-page parts. The title story of Man in the Shadows is more expansive, although it too ends with the loose ends that are likely when venality and indeed murder often escape punishment. Corris also extends to a very funny story, ‘High Integrity’, concerning a trial run by criminals who are intent on forging the new Australia Card when it is introduced. Let Cliff have the last word: ‘I don’t want a bloody Australia Card … When I want another card I ask the dealer’.

In the next two decades, Hardy’s cases would involve the Newcastle earthquake, in Aftershock (1992); he would learn – in The Other Side of Sorrow (1999) – that his ex-wife Cyn was dying of cancer and that they had a daughter. In Salt and Blood (2002) he would be reunited with a former flame, and police officer who is now also a private investigator, Glen Withers. Appeal Denied (2007) begins ‘Following my last major case, I was given a suspended sentence for various offences’. Hardy loses his licence. Old hands give some solace – Hilde and Frank Parker, his doctor Ian Sangster, Harry Tickener, who by now runs an on-line newsletter. His ‘live-out lover’, the journalist Lily Truscott, has been murdered. With the encouragement of her brother, Tony Truscott, a welterweight boxer, Hardy investigates. Again he detects official malfeasance, this time in the recently formed Northern Crimes Unit. One senses that Corris was at this point (in his mid-60s – is Hardy yet that old?) equivocal. Was he about to conclude the series, or was this book a way of recharging it, perhaps against the odds?

Knockouts and murders follow. More of the strong women who have always distinguished the Hardy series make their appearances – Pam Williams and Hannah Morello, each of whose policeman husbands has been murdered, as they suspect, on the orders of corrupt senior colleagues. After the suburban anatomy of Sydney extends to St Leonard’s and the Lord of the Isles, ‘a fancied-up old pub that was working the Scottish theme to death’, the showdown takes place at Balmoral Beach. Hardy survives, and receives an unexpected bequest from Lily Truscott. He decides to do up the house in Glebe, whose every leak and creak and bashed-in door readers have long been party, and to go to Nevada to see Tony Truscott fight for a shot at the world welterweight title: ‘He’s dedicating the fight to Lily. I’m going over there to support him’. When Hilde Parker asks Hardy ‘”After that?’ – “Who knows?” I said.”’ Corris could not have known, but may have hoped, for the extra decade and the eleven more original titles that were to come.

A Note on Sources

There are web listings of Peter Corris’s works but they are not reliable. Some have no publication dates; others have the wrong ones. All dates are vouched for that appear in this article. Corris’s Godfather blog is readily accessible on line. His work, the Cliff Hardy books in particular, has been widely reviewed, but not considered at length before. Whether he will have an afterlife as long as Simenon’s Maigret, or will become a curiosity of literary history (and perhaps of racial politics) such as Upfield’s Bony, are questions for the future.