A few thoughts on the passing of Peter Corris, the father of modern Australian crime fiction

I suspect a lot of fans of contemporary Oz crime fiction, and more than a few of its current practitioners, may have forgotten or perhaps don’t even know the debt we all owe to Sydney based crime writer Peter Corris, who died last night at the age of 76.

I have written a bit about Corris on this site and others. And given Pulp Curry originally started off wholly dedicated to crime fiction, I wanted to make a few observations about an author who has given me a lot of pleasure, as well as being incredibly influential on Australian crime fiction.

Corris’ debut novel, The Dying Trade, was published in 1980 (something must have been in the water that year because it also saw the publication of Grabrielle Lord’s important first novel, Fortress). The Dying Trade introduced the hardscrabble Sydney private investigator, Cliff Hardy.

Hardy is an ex-insurance claims investigator and army veteran, who served during the so-called “Malaya Emergency” in the 1950s when Australian troops were brought in to help the British control that country’s growing communist insurgency. In many respects, Hardy was typical of the breed of PI characters that were popular in the US, stretching right back to the work of Raymond Chandler. He liked a drink. His private life was a mess. He took his fair share of beatings and administered a few, seemed to be constantly broke, and had a troubled relationship with local law enforcement.

But Hardy and his Sydney setting were intensely Australian, a major departure from the faux American PI novels that had dominated the local crime writing since the end of World War II. Hardy drank cask red (the wine cask being an Australian invention), he rolled his own ciggies, and drove around Sydney in an old Ford Falcon always in need of repair. Hardy’s Australianness and the vivid depiction of Sydney, from its architecture to its class politics and bent coppers was revolutionary at the time and the book, along with Fortress, breathed life into the genre that had been in poor health locally for much of the 1970s.

I first read Corris when I was living in the sleepy capital of Laos, Vientiane, in the early 1990s. Laos was very isolated. English language books were rare and my partner and I had to cross the Mekong to Nong Kai in Thailand just to make an international phone call. One exception to the dearth of reading matter was the Australian embassy library, in which I found an omnibus collection of three Hardy stories, The Dying Trade and two others, the names of which I can’t remember. Anyway, I devoured them and had to get friends in Melbourne to send me Hardy books in the post as there were no more in the library.

In The Dying Trade, Hardy is hired by a property developer to discover who is behind harassing phone threats to the man’s sister. As is so often the case in a good PI story, the apparent simplicity of the case is in inverse proportion to what is really going on. No sooner has Hardy started to probe for answers than it becomes clear the developer’s family harbours very dark secrets.

What I  like about the Hardy books is the way the character’s work not only pushes up against Sydney’s dregs but also its elites, the shonky developers, greedy financiers and corrupt politicians. Indeed, all the Hardy books are shot through with a keen awareness that the misdeeds of the rich and powerful are usually far greater than anything the underclass can dish up, as well as harder to detect and prosecute. They also ooze an egalitarian point of view that pre-dates the wave of economic deregulation introduced in the 1980s, which would fundamentally transform the country.

Corris would go onto write 52 Hardy books and while I won’t begrudge an author the payday that is a long running series, I have to be honest and say I lost interest after the first ten or so. But those first four or five books, in particular, were absolute master classes of well plotted, politically engaged, hardboiled crime writing. Book two, White Meat (1981), was another missing person’s case that is partly set in Sydney’s Indigenous Aboriginal community. Number three, The Marvellous Boy (1982) sees Hardy employed by a rich widow to find her missing grandson.

Book four, The Empty Beach, opens with Hardy being employed by a widow to find her missing  businessman husband. The action mainly takes place in Bondi – obviously far less gentrified than it is today – and gradually sees Hardy ensnared in drug trafficking and murder. The Dying Beach was the only Hardy book that made it to the screen, in a 1985 film starring Bryan Brown, who was brilliant as Hardy. The film did terribly at the box off and is still unavailable on DVD in Australia, which is a huge shame because it is excellent and the books would’ve made an excellent series. I firmly believe that the reason the film did so poorly was because it was ahead of its time in terms of Australian cinema, the dark themes, the fact that so much of the plot is left unexplained and the pessimistic ending in which justice is not served.

Corris wrote 102 books in total, including a number of biographies and several other series. I particularly want to give a shout out to the eight little known novels featuring Ray Crawly, an incredibly downbeat series about a former journalist and his on again, off again job as an agent for a wing for the Australian secret service. The books, which I remember being in the tradition of the UK show, Callan, where actually made into three one hour television shows by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in 1986, starring the wonderful New Zealand actor, Bruno Lawrence, as Crawly. I recall someone telling me that the ABC lost or wiped over the tapes of the series, because it has never been shown again, a story, which if true, I will never forgive the national broadcaster for.

It took Corris four years to find a publisher for The Dying Trade. ‘They said that Australian crime readers wanted books about New York, Los Angeles or London,’ Corris said in an interview he did with Sydney crime fiction buff, Andrew Prentice, for the now defunct magazine I used to help edit, Crime Factory.

I loved how Corris looked back on the time he was struggling to get The Dying Trade published.

‘They weren’t interested in local crime apart from, as you say, the pulp stuff, Carter Brown, Larry Kent, which was really sort of faux-American. It really wasn’t set anywhere. But those publishers were wrong. There are letters in the Mitchell Library [one of the reference collections in the State Library of New South Wales] from some of those publishers saying, this will never work, Peter should do something else. Fuck ‘em.’

I will post the full interview with Peter Corris that appeared in issue 14 of Crime Factory, which is no long available online, in full on this site in the coming days.

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  1. Pingback: A sit down with the Godfather: an interview with Peter Corris | Pulp Curry

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