Despite Cliff Hardy’s creator, Peter Corris, having long been described locally as the godfather of Australian crime fiction I had never read one of the books featuring the Sydney-based private investigator until a couple of years ago and even then I chose to read a current book rather than delve into Hardy’s past. But this month’s Past Offences challenge to read a crime novel from 1980 gave me the motivation I needed to start at the beginning.
As well as being Peter Corris’ first foray into crime fiction THE DYING TRADE presented Australia’s first hard-boiled private investigator of any substance in the form of Cliff Hardy. The opening lines of the book make it very clear who Cliff is and demonstrate the kind of succinct yet image-rich writing style Corris would become known for
I was feeling fresh as a rose that Monday at 9:30 a.m. My booze supply had run out on Saturday night. I had no way of replenishing it on the Sabbath because we still had Sunday prohibition in Sydney then. I didn’t have a club; that’d gone a while before, along with my job as an insurance investigator. I also didn’t have a wife – not any more – or friends with well-filled refrigerators. Unless I could be bothered driving twenty-five miles to become a bona fide traveller, Sunday could be as dry as a Mormon meeting hall.
As well as being a dedicated drinker and having a somewhat cynical sense of humour, as we learn here, we also soon discover that Cliff was once a soldier, that as well as drinking to excess he smokes in a way that would be almost impossible these days given how many places the practice is illegal, the only sport he is interested in is boxing (in his most un-Australian trait he is disinterested in any brand of football) and that he is not beyond using violence to achieve his ends (though he suffers at least as much as he dishes out).
Although Corris makes no secret of the fact his inspiration for the Hardy stories were the novels of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler there is no mistaking that Hardy and his environment are entirely Australian. He lives in an inner-city Sydney that, at least in 1980, was still pretty close to its working class roots, and as the novel unfolds offers an intimate look at the entire city and its myriad social and geographic boundaries. The cynicism has an Australian flavour, as does the way Hardy views different kinds of crime and the criminals who perpetrate them, operating on the basis that the worst crimes are those that generally go unpunished if not entirely unreported because they are committed by people with the money and power to make unpleasantness disappear.
The story starts out with deceptive simplicity: Hardy is asked by a wealthy businessman to investigate harassing phone calls and other threatening behaviour his sister is experiencing. But almost no one, perhaps aside from Hardy himself, is who they first appear to be in this novel so Hardy has to unravel layers of family secrets and broader corruption while dodging car bombs and other attempts to hide the truth. The resolution leaves Hardy, the novel’s surviving characters and the reader somewhat exhausted from the succession of sucker punches that fill the second half of the book.
I must admit that having only ever read very late novels to this series I had struggled to understand the widespread reverence for Cliff Hardy that I see in local crime fiction circles. But THE DYING TRADE does make it abundantly obvious why the character and his world are much admired. Well worth a read.
Publisher: Text Classics [This edition 2012, original edition 1980]
Length: 284 pages
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