A new collection of writing by the late crime writer Peter Corris highlights the hard-boiled genius of his lasting character Cliff Hardy

Peter Corris, 1982. Picture: Lorrie Graham

Peter Corris, 1982. Picture: Lorrie Graham

Logically enough, books published from beyond the grave rarely have much life in them. They can be hypocritical (like a volume of tribute essays), opportunist (a hitherto unpublishable manuscript) or unconvincing (a story completed by someone else)). Happily, Jean Bedford's selection of Peter Corris' short stories, columns and dictionary-style advice for crime writers falls into none of those traps. See You at the Toxteth (Allen and Unwin. 323pp. $32.99) is a gracious, generous remembrance of one of Australia's most popular authors.

Peter Corris wrote 42 novels about his Sydney detective, Cliff Hardy, as well as 19 in other series (uneven sets, starring Raw Crawley, Richard Browning and Luke Dunlop), historical fiction (seven of those), sport, Pacific history and biography. Georges Simenon published 76 Maigret novels (albeit short ones, using a self-consciously limited range of words), but few other crime writers have come close to turning 42 stories about their hero into print.

I have been lucky enough to read almost all Corris' books, to review a lot of them and to appear on the back jacket of some of them. Best of all, I have watched my son also take pleasure in finding a new Corris in a bookshop.

For me, Corris' character was most plainly revealed when I gave a bad review to one of the historical tales. Instead of bitching about me or grumbling to me, Peter Corris wrote me a letter, noting the criticisms, observing that he had respected my judgment in the past, then undertaking to think again about the shortcomings I had mentioned. In decades of reviewing, I have never received another such open-hearted missive.

We kid ourselves that some living things - Winx, Adam Goodes, perhaps Bob Hawke - epitomise something intrinsic and ineffable about Australia. Cliff Hardy, an entirely fictional creation, does just that. To borrow Raymond Chandler's definition of a detective hero, Hardy is not merely a man "who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid". He is an ineffably Australian man, who is not himself heroic, who is neither bluffed nor bullied. Throughout those 42 novels, Hardy sees right through us.

Cliff Hardy is an ordinary bloke, with retro tastes, working within his own limits, usually offering his enemies some version of a fair fight. Although Corris made his plots seem disarmingly casual and natural, Hardy always works hard for his living. None of the stories depends unduly on strained co-incidences. None reveals flashes of intuition, but rather a long, tough slog from a clue to a lead to an alibi to a murder.

In a Corris plot, enough people are killed, without crude resort to massacres or terrorism. Sydney, the perennial backdrop, is treated with the cynicism that city deserves. The rich get their way, a fair share of the police are crooked and corrupt, neither lawmakers nor the law itself can be relied upon. And yet, evil does not win every round. Cliff Hardy, emotionally baffled and sporting too many biffs to the head, battles on.

Other Australian crime writers have reached farther afield, back to dingy, rainy Ulster for Adrian McKinty, over to verdant but lethal England for Barry Maitland. Others working in the genre have suffered dips in their imagination and resourcefulness, temporarily for Donna Leon, more drastically for Daniel Silva. Peter Corris was steadier and smarter: he knew when he was right at home.

The A to Z for crime writers included in this volume may be technically too prosaic to guide putative authors. We are told that heroes should display "a judicious courage" (rather than guts alone). The rewards for such heroes is that they are permitted to age at one third the natural rate, and are encouraged to have a drinking problem. A murder should occur within the first quartile of a book, boxing may suit as a backing sport, and five words (though not one more) might be employed in a longer title. Although guilt, blackmail and adultery have lost their sting as motives for murder, the forces of hatred and greed will always confect other reasons for homicide.

Those rules do not really capture either the fizz and zip in the Hardy series or the full gamut of crime fiction. The bleak, grim, increasingly sordid world of Nordic noir is touched on only lightly in the A to Z. Perhaps Corris sensed that Nordic noir would outlive its welcome, piling on too many horrors, having too many children murdered, presenting too serial killers with body parts in their basements, dysfunctional families upstairs, and secrets in their hearts. For Hardy (as for Chandler's Marlowe), the true foreigners are the rich. Hardy and Marlowe regard them with an avid curiosity verging on the anthropological. They recognise just how wrong Scott Fitzgerald was when he opined that the rich are different from us simply "because they have more money".

The light-hearted charm in the Vish Puri novels (by Tarquin Hall) is not included; nor is the delightful set of stories (Colin Cotterill's) about the last coroner in Laos. Mind you, those two detectives are a world away from Hardy in physical and moral terms as well as geographically. Vish Puri is a pudgy, sly, sweat-stained New Delhi detective, afraid of his wife but otherwise able to outsmart the world at large. The Lao coroner, Dr Siri, communes in a matter of fact way with the animist, luminous world of the spirits while chomping down his wife's noodle dishes on the banks of the Mekong. Hardy has partners, friends and lovers, but none of them lasts as a soul-mate. Certainly none of them re-enters the plot once dead, as Siri's mates are wont to do.

In his A to Z, Corris talked about his stories depicting "realistic people with realistic problems". The repeated adjective counts for something, because crime novels and the characters in them need to be credible. Sherlock Holmes was invariably so arch and snobby as to drain any whiff of tension or suspense out of Conan Doyle's tales. The smarty-pants would always be a couple of steps ahead.

Imagine Cliff Hardy filling a pipe from a slipper (rather than maybe rolling his own) or cogitating while playing a violin (rather than mulling over a conundrum with the benefit of beer, wine or whisky). Nero Wolfe (created by Rex Stout) was similarly omniscient, even without stirring his vast bulk out of his brownstone.

The same point applies with equal force to villains. Because Anthony Hopkins managed a compelling portrayal of a cannibal serial killer, we may forget how ludicrously implausible Hannibal Lecter was (in Silence of the Lambs and the other lamentable books in the series).

None of Cliff Hardy's adversaries changed shape, sexuality or their essential nature. None of them proved invulnerable to assault by a revolver or a blunt instrument. Magic potions and silver bullets are unknown in the Corris canon.

Corris, though, would not have been easily diverted by less hard-boiled crime fiction as he typed away during two one-hour daily sessions, each accompanied by "a sizeable glass of wine, sometimes two". Good luck to him.

When I farewelled another crime writer, James Lee Burke, Jim advised me to try to conduct my life in E Major, "the rockers' key, the happy key".

I suspect that Peter Corris did precisely that.

  • Mark Thomas is a Canberra reviewer.
This story Remembering the hard-boiled genius of Peter Corris first appeared on The Canberra Times.