Reviewed by Ian Lipke
The name of Peter Corris ranks high in the annals of Australia crime writing. Of his ninety odd books published between 1973 and 2017, forty-two feature his private eye, somewhat damaged, hero Cliff Hardy. Other fiction include the ‘Creepy’ Crawley and Browning series and a number of non-fiction books that include biographies of Fred Hollows and Ray Barrett. There is also A Round of Golf featuring himself.
Peter Corris was a simple man with a simple taste in writing. I do not mean that he was slow of mental functioning. Rather I mean just the opposite. A highly intelligent writer he learned quickly where his strengths lay, and he capitalised upon them. He chose crime writing, and he chose a hero who was destined to remain a simple man himself.
Cliff Hardy – the fictional Cliff Hardy – is a boxer who got out of belting people for a living when an opponent, with a superior use of his fists, showed him another career. Hardy has a simple approach to solving crime, which he does invariably by consulting with authorities, drinking heavily, and taking life as it comes. Each story places no strain on the reader, who can absorb what is being read without concentrating too much. Having finished the story, it can be put aside, the reader feeling quite contented with what he has read.
The first of the short stories that appear, one after another, is called ‘Man’s Best Friend’, an excerpt from Heroin Annie, published in 1984. It begins:
I was walking along Vincent Street in Balmain,, down near the soapworks, minding someone else’s business, when a brick hit me, then another brick hit me, then another and I lost count; it felt as if a brick wall had moved out of line and wrapped itself around Cliff Hardy.
When I woke up Terry Kenneally was sitting beside my bed (3).
Within a few lines we have found out: the names of the street and suburb, then the location in the street, and that he is an investigator of some sort (in fact, a private detective). We discover he is being hit by flying bricks, (so someone does not approve of his involvement in somebody else’s activities), and that his ironic humour does not guard him from an attack that renders him unconscious. Then we find he awakens in hospital with his girlfriend waiting patiently for him to return to consciousness.
What follows is, not a tradesman-like working through of a series of phases in a criminal investigation, but a polished, in-character performance in which original quirks form a very readable account. At the taking down of the killer, Hardy is on the brink of extermination when the killer is attacked by his own dog that rips into his throat. Shot in the leg and in intense pain and, having killed the dog that had turn its attentions towards himself, Hardy makes his way to normalcy once again.
The individual stories in this collection are well worth the effort of reading. They are, in general terms, well-constructed examples of an era that is passing. However, when placed together in a collection like this, their sameness takes away the originality of the author. His stories should be collected, they should be a source of comfort to the family and friends left behind after Peter Corris’s death, but on the open market, they do not add to the writer’s considerable reputation.
Something more is needed to raise the expectations of readers, and the ABC of Crime Writing which begins on page 221 is not it. So many trite definitions! We are told;
I wanted to provide a kind of tour through the work of crime writers I’m familiar with drawing attention to some of the key ideas, styles and devices they use to write their stories. I found myself occasionally offering advice, suggestions, a strategy, preferring one way of doing things to another but that was still a very secondary motive (221).
Peter Corris must have known that a superficial treatment was hardly likely to attract anybody to this section. “A is for Action”, “A is also for Adultery,” “A is also for age,” and “A is also for alcohol” and “P is for passion (see L for Love and S for Sex)” – several of the sub-items that inhabit this section of the book. Some entries attract half a page, some only one line, many offering information that is at least debatable, and none of sufficient interest to raise this book from the subterranean level to which it has fallen.
The book offers other sections such as Crime and Crime Writing, the Columns (289), [most often appearing in the Newtown Review of Books which Corris founded]. This is followed by a series of essays on a variety of topics. However, I had lost patience, skim reading them and quickly deciding that they were not likely to change my mind.
A reviewer is supposed to provide an impartial view of the qualities of each book he reviews. I have to admit anger at the insensitive way in which Peter Corris’s work has been remembered. Peter Corris was a fine writer whose memory requires something of more substance than this ragbag of tales and definitions.
By Peter Corris
Allen & Unwin