You often hear writers referred to as the King or the Queen, or Godfather of a particular genre or style. Sometimes such kudos is overblown, or misplaced. I remember when my first novel came out, I met British crime writer, who shall remain nameless. Rather nervously, I approached and said,
Excuse me, you don’t know me, I’ve just had novel published. And I just wanted to say welcome to Australia and…
She cut me off and said: ‘I am the Queen of Crime and Elmore Leonard is the King. Everybody else is a subject.’
This is in stark contrast to another meeting, a few years earlier, when I went to a local library to hear Peter Corris speak. Plucking up my courage, I told him that I wanted to be a writer. Peter could not have been more charming or encouraging, but also realistic, explaining the discipline it took and how hard it was to make a living as a full-time writer.
I had admired the novels of Peter Corris since the early 1980s, when I first moved to Sydney from the NSW country. I was a cadet journalist on an afternoon newspaper, chasing sirens around the city, doing police rounds and court reports. I had grown up in tiny country towns, and suddenly I was thrust into SIN CITY…
I’ll tell you how naïve I was. Working nights for the newspaper, my driver and photographer decided they’d have a bit of fun with me, the hayseed, who’d come to the big smoke. They took me to a strip joint in King’s Cross. Not one of the up-market, bouncer at the door, places. This bar was so cheap, the strippers had to put their own money into a jukebox and choose what song they were going to disrobe to.
My jaw was on the floor, (and you didn’t want anything touching the floor) when a beautiful scantily clad Eurasian woman came up to me and wrapped her arms around my neck. I thought I was in here. Then the photographer sidled up to me and whispered, ‘Check out the Adam’s Apple.’
‘The Adam’s Apple.’
I thought, ‘What’s an Adam’s Apple?’ I had no idea.
‘It’s a bloke,’ he said.
Soon after that, I picked up a novel called THE DYING TRADE, which introduced me to a beer-drinking, chain-smoking, womanising, brawling, politically incorrect former soldier, amateur boxer and now private eye called Cliff Hardy.
Cliff became my guide to Sydney. He taught me about the mean streets, the conmen, junkies, spruikers, bent coppers, bikies, dealers and white collar criminals. He showed me it was possible to be friends with all of them, but never to get too close.
I am here tonight to honour the creator of Cliff Hardy. The academic, journalist, historian, biographer and crime writer, Peter Corris, a man who truly is the GODFATHER of Australian crime-writing.
The writers who are here tonight, owe an enormous debt of gratitude to Peter, because we are standing on his shoulders. He paved the way. He kicked down doors. He showed publishers that Australian readers, wanted to read Australian stories.
Up until Peter began writing, very few significant crime novels had been set in Australia. Yes, we can name some of them – like Ellen Davitt, Arthur Upfield, John Lang and Jon Cleary – among others, but by 1980 Aussie readers had become used to a steady diet of crime novels set in London and Los Angeles or New York.
It took Peter Corris five years to get his first Cliff Hardy novel published - THE DYING TRADE – because he was told that Aussie readers didn’t want to read local crime fiction.
How wrong could they be?
While living in San Francisco, Peter Corris had read a slew detective novels by Ross Macdonald and came up with the idea of transplanting the hard-boiled Californian private eye to Australia. He was struck by the similarities between the cities, the water, the hills and the rakish, disreputable streets. As a result, he sat down and created Australia’s answer to Phillip Marlowe and Sam Spade and Lew Archer.
Since that first novel, Peter Corris has published more than two fiction books a year on average. It is an extraordinary achievement – possibly among living Australian writers, a unique one. More than 42 of those novels feature Cliff Hardy. Like Hardy, Peter has found a living in a trade where few survive. And like Hardy, he has done this by ducking and weaving, and keeping his costs down.
Cliff hasn’t aged in real time – otherwise he’d be in his seventies. When he started out he was just shy of 40 and 37 years later, he is just over 50. (I wish I could age like that). He’s a big bloke, very fit, with a head of wiry dark hair, a craggy face. Physically resourceful, strong sense of humour and certain principles he lives by. Doesn’t like greed, corruption, or hypocrites.
A few years ago, I edited a collection of essays where some of Australia’s best crimewriters talk about their craft and give advice. The book is called: IF I TELL YOU, I’LL HAVE TO KILL YOU.
Peter Corris wrote:
‘After writing virtually every day for over 30 years, it has become something like breathing – stop it and I’d die. I am addicted to writing. Like a smoker who claims not to be addicted to nicotine but to the gestures, the cigarette selection, the lighting, the ashing, the stubbing out, I am addicted to the process – turning on the computer, getting the file up, tapping the keys, saving, storing on the memory stick. But just as the smoker is kidding him or herself about the nature of the dependency, I have to admit that my dependency is also emotional AND psychological.’
In January of this year Peter Corris published his last novel, WIN, LOSE OR DRAW, marking the end of an astonishing career. A diabetic since the age of 16, Peter’s eyesight was always at risk and some serious partying in his early years have ultimately taken their toll, despite Peter having become very health and diet conscious over recent decades.
Although we’re sad to see him go, Peter should be incredibly proud of the prodigious body of work he has generated over the past 37 years. Thrilling readers but never taking them for granted, and inspiring a generation of writers.
Thank you Peter Corris. Thank, you Jean Bedford, your wonderful wife and editor. Thank you to your children and grandchildren, who have shared your life.
You have already won a LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT AWARD but that doesn’t seem quite enough, so this evening, we are giving you one more award, to add to your collection. Aren’t they beautiful. Hand crafted in the Pyrenees, Victoria, by Adam Donnison from an original design by Bernard Abadie, the Red Gum supplied by Darryl Driscoll.
Shane Maloney, who is here tonight, wrote a wonderful piece about Cliff Hardy for THE AUSTRALIAN and I hope Shane won’t mind me quoting it now.
SHANE described Sydney as being a city of log-jam traffic and the surf and the Sleaze Ball with giant cockroaches and the bent coppers named “Chook” and Jonesy and Lawsy and Nifty and Mr Big and Mr Sin and Carlotta and the NSW Right with hose-downable pubs, and rugby thugs, and old men with bare leathery chests walking fox terriers across the wet sand.
And amid this swarming and pulsating of 4.5 million humidity-fevered, real-estate maddened, thonged and singletted human beings, came a lone man staggering down a back lane in Glebe – a man with the sour taste of yesterday’s Tooheys in his mouth and the ring of deliberate lies in his ears. A man who has been bludgeoned and coshed and bashed and biffed and set up, who has been fucked with and fucked over and, when he manages to get lucky, sometimes just plain fucked.
And as he catches his breath against the ramshackle back fence of the only unrenovated knocking shop left in the old neighbourhood and tilts his head back and draws a deep lungful of the fetid, corruption-stinking air, we glimpse his beaten-up but not beaten-down features and we recognise them as surely as we would recognise the silhouette of the Opera House or the coat-hanger profile of the Harbour Bridge, for we know this man of old, we love this man, he is Cliff Hardy.’