Long- distance melodrama
FINDING the right way to say goodbye to a great detective character has disturbed so many masters of mystery that few have the courage to do it. Losing someone they have lived with for so long breaks their hearts. At the end of Peter Corris’s Appeal Denied , No. 32 in the Cliff Hardy series, his creator sent him to the US to help his dead lover’s boxer brother train for a title bout. His private inquiry licence was cancelled and he was banned for life. Some readers thought it was the end, the series finally worn out.
‘‘ He wasn’t tired and neither was I,’’ an amused Corris says. ‘‘ I need to keep writing for personal therapy and cash flow.’’
He decided to leave Hardy in the US for a bit and decided on a retrospective, something Corris had successfully attempted in 1993 with Matrimonial Causes .
This time he takes Hardy back to Sydney in 1987. The Ananda Marga sect is seeking compensation for wrongful imprisonment for the Hilton hotel bombing, trannies still haunt Darlinghurst’s William Street and kids throw Frisbees around the city’s parks.
Hardy is drawn back into a missing person’s case involving a troubled young man that might be a faked death or worse. But what seems routine quickly turns sinister as he investigates Justin Hampshire’s background, family circumstances and the deceptions and disappointments of his life. The boy’s interest in military history and war memorials has Hardy piloting his old Falcon in circles across NSW.
These days Hardy is ageing, vulnerable and full of the sadness of the world. Back in the 1980s, however, he’s still happy to drive a baseball bat into a hit man’s kneecap after he has crushed a dog’s skull and can still take out heavies who point pistols at him in Glebe’s back streets, hard types with bitter mouths and eyes. ‘‘ Emotionally undernourished,’’ Hardy mutters.
He finds his way through lies and obsessions, always looking for the door that opens the past. He knows he’s a bit of a romantic and would probably call it a weakness. In Open File he admits to something his women have never understood: ‘‘ the sheer interest a case like this set up, the way it got under my skin, into my head and needed to be resolved’’.
Open File finds Corris in top form. It’s familiar, hard- bitten, assured and highly entertaining, written with his unique sense of rational containment and his unassuming mastery of setting and social context.
His style is tightly made and refuses to allow a static sentence or one without pertinence. He’s always able to beat the genre trap, not by venturing outside room inside.
‘‘ I’ve never had any trouble having fun within the genre, aping other books and writers, slinging off at other writers, getting my rocks off politically, sport- wise, religion- wise, socially,’’ he says. ‘‘ A lot of this goes unnoticed but I get a kick out of it.’’
He draws his readability not from his skill at piling on portions of sex, wisecracks, violence and death but from his long- drawn portrait of a man slowly growing old. ‘‘ The Hardy character
his family. And she then allows the book to circle back to its beginning; to the reason for writing autobiographically, and what she has understood from it.
Most of the pieces in the book have an honesty and attention to detail which is engaging and disarming, and the best pieces are very powerful indeed: my favourites are Strange Times ( about the classroom experience); Close to the Bone ( her husband’s own childhood trauma), and Writing About Us ( Jonathan’s illness). These are brilliantly observed, tender yet unflinching, heartbreaking yet never melodramatic pieces which go right to a reader’s heart and mind.
Not everything worked for me, however. Top Dog, about the training of the family dog, has a makeweight feel to it. The Story My Mother Tells Me, which focuses on Blain’s pregnancy and Odessa’s birth, I found introspective and precious to the point of obsessive. And there are puzzling absences: Blain’s mother and older brother emerge strongly but Joshua, her younger brother, is almost invisible. Her father is hardly present, except in The Germaine Tape, which itself felt obtuse, like a misreading frozen from childhood.
Despite these quibbles, this is a lucidly and elegantly written book, which is pervaded by a haunting sense of melancholy. It is also very readable: I found myself reading it in one long sitting, engaged and occasionally irritated, but always absorbed. Sophie Masson’s most recent novel is The Maharajah’s Ghost. Georgia Blain is a guest at Adelaide Writers Week.