Long- dis­tance melo­drama

Graeme Blun­dell

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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

but by

find­ing un­ex­pected

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.

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