CRIME novelists are as desperate for reinvention as their characters are for redemption. Dashiell Hammett stopped writing because he found he was repeating himself. ‘‘ It’s the beginning of the end,’’ he said, ‘‘ when you discover you have style.’’
Peter Corris has always beaten the genre trap, not by venturing outside, but by finding unexpected room within. His latest Cliff Hardy book, Appeal Denied ( Allen & Unwin, 205pp, $ 19.95), is, as usual, familiar, assured and highly entertaining, written with Corris’s unique sense of rational containment and his understated mastery of setting and social context.
He likes to weave his serial narratives in and out of the politics of the day, this time the usefulness and commitment of the Sydney police and the development scams of local councils. Like Hardy, he seldom shouts and is never really polemical, but there’s no doubting his deep sense of moral indignation at civic corruption and the way Sydney operates with a nod and a wink and a brown paper bag.
Hardy, unlike Corris, is retired and far from self- funded, and thinking of ringing John Laws to complain about a system that requires private investigators to wear kid gloves. But when girlfriend Lily Truscott is murdered, Hardy is consumed with a puritanical sense of righteous- ness and a purpose as effulgent as the holy grail.
Corris is so good he can play small jokes with the genre but some newcomers, such as Leah Giarratano, just don’t understand its cultural mythology. Giarratano, a real- life clinical psychologist specialising in cognitive behaviour therapy, has turned out a thinly written serial killer ( a moratorium on these psychopaths, please) procedural called Vodka Doesn’t Freeze ( Random House, 324pp, $ 32.95).
She may be an expert in psychological trauma, sex offences and offenders who suffer severe personality disorders, but her first novel is stylistically ingenuous.
Leigh Redhead can write, and once did hard yards in the ‘‘ hostility industry’’ as a stripper before her clever Simone Kirsch novels shook their arses in front of readers’ faces. Her third,
Cherry Pie ( Allen & Unwin, 384pp, $ 19.95) finds 28- year- old Kirsch flashing her puppies at a bunch of balding, pasty- faced, pissed suits, humping the fluffy white carpet offcut, to finance her detective agency.
For surveillance equipment, a new car and an ad in the Yellow Pages, she’ll need at least 20 grand, so she agrees to help a childhood friend who has something big on someone in the hospitality business. Well- paced, ribald and laugh- out- loud- funny, Cherry Pie proves yet again that it’s not impossible for a flasher to be a good feminist.
Redhead’s ‘‘ tart noir’’ is very funny but Geoff McGeachin’s second Alby Murdoch comic spy thriller, Sensitive New Age Spy ( Penguin, 286pp, $ 29.95), while slick and clever, raises few laughs.
Murdoch, acting head of the Directorate for Extra- territorial Defence, is faced with a mystery tanker moored off Sydney, and two thermonuclear warheads the size of beer kegs are missing.
McGeachin loves acronyms and detailed ordnance descriptions and he does write pacy action scenes. But his laconic sense of irony is wearying after a few pages, the send- up too unrelenting. McGeachin is an amalgam of Robert G. Barrett and Austin Powers, but unlike Barrett you can’t imagine him wearing a Helen Demindenko T- shirt to a writers’ convention.