The city of Sydney, Australia, is many things. Sitting on one of the most beautiful harbours, edged by stunning beaches on one side and breathtaking mountains on the other, it is brash, sparkling, fast-paced, expensive, sprawled, traffic-choked, obsessed with real estate and restaurants, and full of workaholics who play hard and live hard. It is exciting, interesting, fun, confident and charming and knows how to have a good time. It can also wear you down, isolate you and make you hate public transport with a vengeance.
Sydney is sometimes accused of being a ‘hard’ city; all shine and gloss without much substance. And though I am a Sydney lover (born and bred), I do believe it’s a city which lacks introspection. Sydneysiders don’t often think about what Sydney means, about its special character. Sydney just is. And perhaps because of this, one of the things you don’t associate with Sydney, sadly, is literature. That’s not to say we don’t have wonderful resident writers, nor books which are set in this town, yet the city doesn’t often feature in novels as anything more than a backdrop. But there are a couple of authors who write the Emerald City marvellously, and Peter Corris is one of them.
It was day one of the new year’s cricket test (an institution), and I was sitting in a stand, parallel to the pitch, munching on a corn beef sandwich, sipping on a beer and reading my book, Torn Apart by Peter Corris, during a break in play. Life does not get much better. All I needed was to be enthusiastically conversing about books, and lo I did as one of my co-spectators and I went on to discuss how we both viewed Corris as possibly the best writer of Sydney.*
It is one thing to write a book where the setting is written such that it inspires people to travel to that destination, it is another to write a book where the people who live in the place you are writing of nod their heads in agreement and feel a flutter of affection in their heart for their hometown, it is another again to inspire this beating of romance as your character trails around the city’s seedier domains looking for a killer.
Peter Corris has been writing novels starring private detective Cliff Hardy for as long as I’ve been alive (both Cliff and your little blogger were ‘first published’ in 1980). Cliff Hardy is a man who knows his city inside out, from the big end of town to the dingiest back room. Beach, bush or high street; park, bar or boxing ring—Hardy has Sydneytown and its people pegged. This doesn’t mean he is a Sydney evangelist (Hardy sometimes seems to loathe it in the way you can only loathe something you are close to) it is more that he acknowledges the way the city pulses beneath his skin, that we are all shaped by the living culture around us, and that we in turn shape it. Hardy would not be Hardy without Sydney, and the Sydney in these books would lose some of its substance without Hardy.
Peter Corris may not stand on a sandstone block and wax lyrical about the natural beauty and appealing customs of his people, his Cliff Hardy novels may not resemble Oprah’s take on the harbour city, but dammit if he doesn’t write Sydney to a T. You will be equally happy to tag along with Hardy whether he is buying a coffee in the inner city, taking a stroll along an eastern suburbs beach, conversing with a particular subset of the greater Sydney crime population, or trading blows with some deadbeat. It is all so honest and gut-feelingly ‘true’.
Corris writes about the city in a knowledgable and effective way that speaks to those who also know it. But you don’t need to be a dyed-in-the-wool Sydneyphile to enjoy a Cliff Hardy story. But if you do know and (mostly) love this city, you will like his excellent crime novels all the more. Corris’ writing, like his protagonist, is succinct, uncomplicated, intelligent and to the point. As a result, his novels are not long, though you will experience more story than you would in many a weighty crime thriller. And despite the relative slimness of his books’ spines, Corris still manages to include a healthy sprinkling of social commentary, the odd twist, and to delve ever deeper into the ticking of his character. In Torn Apart Hardy meets up with a long-lost cousin, who is his spitting image, and they befriend each other and journey to Ireland to discover their Travellers’ roots. On their return to Sydney his cousin is murdered and Cliff is obliged out of personal loyalty to find the killer, and also to satisfy his curiosity about his newfound family member, who, his instincts had already told him, had a shady side.
It’s lovely to read books which transport you to exotic, picturesque, inspiring locales. Goodness knows I’m quite a fan of them. But sometimes it’s heartening to spend time in a more authentic place. To notice the unmade beds, the uneven footpath, to acknowledge the everyday business of catching a bus, of contemplating life and other people in the little ways we do most days. Peter Corris succeeds in giving his readers enjoyable, intriguing, original crime stories, against a background of reality. And that reality just happens to be the city I call home, which is why I like them all the more. The Hardy books give glorious fiction-life, to a glorious living, breathing city.
* Ruth Park was a wonderful writer of Sydney and I just so happened to be having this conversation with another author who ‘gets’ Sydney, Malcolm Knox. There is also John Birmingham’s biography of Sydney, Leviathan, which details the metropolis’ life in glorious, mucky splendour. It was published over a decade ago but is still one of my favourite non-fiction books.