The Cliff Hardy novels began with The Dying Trade in 1980 and the fortieth, Gun Control, appeared in 2015. They are short and written in the first person. The first few books aspired to some baroque language, but the series then settled down to a plainess of language that matched its hero’s simple preoccupations. While compared in his earlier days with Ross McDonald and Raymond Chandler, Corris lacked their ambition.
Bryan Brown starred in an unsuccessful film of The Empty Beach, but most crime novels make poor films due to their structure. They can make good TV series, though, and it is disappointing and surprising that the local TV industry has not done this with Hardy – the books would provide a splendid Crook’s Tour of Sydney.
Although regarded by many older readers with affection, the Hardy novels were somewhat overtaken in the 1990s by the move to crime writing that pays more attention to character, plot and language, the fascination with serial killers and autopsies, and the focus on police detectives rather than private eyes.
For the fans, this makes them all the more appealing.
Here is an interview with Corris published in Slow Sydney in 2013.
Met in Newtown, Peter Corris presents as similar to his great character. He is tall and verging on thin, pleasant, uncomplicated but firm, and formidably dedicated to his chosen path. Since The Dying Trade in 1980, he has published more than two fiction books a year on average, a total of around 70. It is an extraordinary achievement – possibly among living Australian writers, a unique one. Like Cliff Hardy, he has found a living in a trade where few survive. Like Hardy, he has done this by ducking and weaving, and keeping his costs down.
Thirty-eight of those books are about Hardy. Corris has completed number 39 and is looking for the right subject for the fortieth. I ask him what it’s like to have written so many novels about one character.
‘When I started The Dying Trade I had no idea at all it would be a series. I wanted to have a novel published before I was 40. I was a journo at the National Times, had given up academia. But I enjoyed writing it so much I’d finished the second and was well into the third by the time The Dying Trade was published.’
One reason for this was that it took four years to find a publisher. Crime fiction was not fashionable in those days, when most aspiring writers wanted to be the next James Joyce. Corris had published a few well-received non-fiction books, but the pulps were another thing entirely. One publisher opined in his rejection letter for The Dying Trade that ‘Peter’s reputation will not be enhanced by this’.
To the extent there were Australian readers of crime fiction, it was the firm view of Australian publishers that they wanted their books set in America or Britain.
‘Since Upfield, there hadn’t been any significant crime novels set in Australia,’ Corris recalls. ‘Jon Cleary had done a few Scobie Malone books, but even that series didn’t really get going until the late eighties. ‘But I got lucky. Jim Hall was signed up by McGraw Hill to do an Australian fiction list. He was a fan of hard-boiled detectives, and he took The Dying Trade. McGraw Hill closed the list down after two books, but Pan took them on then.’
The Dying Trade was lively, with lots of outrageous images (‘a smile as thin as a surgeon’s glove’) and some neat observations: ‘The rich always have lots of mirrors in their houses because they like what they see in them.’ The book got good reviews and sold well, and the series thrived. The first books, Corris says, ‘were pastiches of Chandler and Ross McDonald, with the language and the similes, but by The Empty Beach I’d found a voice.’
Like most PI books, the Hardy series spends a lot of time with wealthy families, who can afford the services of PIs and seem to need them more than the rest of us. Hardy retains a scepticism about the rich and successful that, at least on the evidence of the books, seems warranted. This extends to entire areas of Sydney – he observes in a later book that the inhabitants of the North Shore are ‘more suburban and less secure’ than the rest of us.
By the time of The Empty Beach, Corris had found not just a voice but a new job, occasionally well paid. ‘Once I had three novels out there, the National Times and Playhouse and Pentboy would pay a thousand dollars for a short story. I could write one in a week, and a batch of them would go to make up a book.’
Corris learned quickly that people liked reading about places they knew. Singer and radio presenter Bob Hudson launched one early novel and described it as ‘like hearing Abe Saffron reading from the Gregory’s’.
Perhaps due to this strong local flavour, the series never sold very well overseas, despite a few outings. Corris seems to have accepted this, and began to drop in local references without explanation. For example, this aside from the late nineties, which warmed many a local heart: ‘Someone should write to Evan Whitton about it’.
On writing a character who ages, Corris says, ‘Cliff’s a fantasy figure, bigger and stronger and braver than me, but to some extent you have to use your own experience – giving up smoking, trying to give up drinking, going to the gym. I have three daughters, and he discovers he has a daughter half-way through the series.’ (The Other Side of Sorrow, 1999.) ‘Being a father was something I could write about, not to be mushy but it gave me another strand. That’s useful – you have to fill in the gaps between the punch-ups. The pleasure of writing is to fill it in with human behaviour, but in a light way. Not like Proust.’
Corris tried a few other series, with heroes such as film actor Richard Browning and witness protection cop Luke Dunlop. They weren’t commercial successes, but he could always return to Cliff, who managed to survive a succession of beatings and monster hangovers into the second decade of the twenty-first century. He grew older, and sometimes wiser: ‘Experience,’ he notes in a recent outing, ‘has taught me not to trust intuition any more than half the time.’
These days, despite a major heart operation, Hardy’s a lot fitter than he deserves to be, partly, Corris says, because he has not aged as quickly as the rest of us. ‘It was laid down by John D. McDonald that you can age a serial character at one-third the natural rate, and no one minds. When I read that, I thought, Fine. Twenty years ago, Cliff was about 40. Now he’s just past 50. Unfortunately his creator is 71.’
He notes that Hardy’s rate of ageing is quite realistic compared with some. ‘Poirot retired from the Belgian police force in 1916 but he was still going in the early 1970s.’
For the older reader there are nostalgic pleasures to be gained from rereading the series. In 1980 paperboys and flagons of wine were common, most cars didn’t have air-con, and many cops were crooked. Not to mention phone boxes – you could write a monograph on the effect the mobile phone has had on the plots of crime novels.
And of course, society has become gentrified, at least those bits the authorities can get their hands on.
‘You have to watch your step these days,’ Hardy reflects on the PI’s lot in the most recent novel, The Dunbar Case. ‘Can’t throw your weight around like before.’
Private eye characters are out of fashion, replaced by police detectives such as John Rebus and Harry Bosch, who keep the spirit of rebellion alive while working successfully – if implausibly – in police forces that are in effect large corporations. Hardy’s determination to follow his solitary path provides a sort of fictional chiaroscuro, making him stand out strong against the corporate worlds.
‘I recognize the PI is anachronistic,” Corris says, “but I do like the fact he works alone. He has no back-up.’
For many of us, especially those who toil for a living in large organizations well provided with WH&S conditions and bullying protocols, this is deeply appealing.
‘You’re an uncomfortable man, Hardy,’ says another character in The Dying Trade.
‘I have to be,’ he replies. ‘If I’m comfortable for you, I’m comfortable all round and nothing gets done.’
Thirty-eight books on, little has changed.
‘You’re an irritating man, Hardy,’ says one crim. ‘A little of you goes a long way. … I’m sure it’s one of your techniques.’
And so it goes. In Saving Billie (2005), Hardy comments to a fellow private detective, now working for a big company, ‘Nice suit. Doing well, Bob?’
‘I have to say I am. No overheads, car in the package, health insurance …’
‘I could do with that.’
‘But not with the rest of it, eh, Cliff?’
‘Not quite, but an endangered species, that’s for sure.’
Eight years later, Hardy and his creator are still at it, an inspiration for their many fans. They have been around so long now they carry a little of all of us with them.