PETER CORRIS Win, Lose or Draw. Reviewed by Tom Patterson
Clear observations and easy rhythms continue to give momentum in this final novel by Peter Corris.
Halfway through The Dying Trade by Peter Corris, Cliff Hardy is under a tarp in the back of a Landrover taking stock: ‘I’d been careless and slow and the thought came to me, not for the first time, that I might be getting too old for this line of work.’ That was the first outing for Hardy, 37 years and 42 books ago. Win, Lose or Draw is the last, and after all this time, after all those close scrapes and corrupt cops and late nights and bad food and cask wine, it’s Corris, not Hardy, who is giving the game away.
It opens, as they always do, with a client. A rich businessman’s daughter has gone missing and Hardy is put on the case after a series of more professional operators have failed. It’s not a bad set-up for a last run – the old hand being called in to show the new boys how it’s done. And for the most part, that’s how it plays. Hardy travels to Norfolk Island, Coolangatta and Byron Bay to get his man. He deals with pimps, drug dealers, strippers, used-boat salesmen and other PIs. He cops a couple of knocks, dishes out some more, gets in a few chapters of Maugham and has a swim in an over-chlorinated pool out the front of a shitty motel.
Hardy can cover all this territory by having an easy way with people. By getting them to open up, he can follow the trail. But he’s wary, too, and quick to judge. There are many of his verdicts in Win, Lose or Draw and one of Corris’s skills is to sketch people in a few deft lines, capturing them with a stance, a gesture or an attitude. Sometimes he doesn’t even need the person to portray the character:
… the occupant had put his bag where I’d put mine and distributed his things in much the same way. To judge by the clothes, he was about my height, but heavier. Not a book reader; a newspaper and magazine man. Not a smoker, but definitely a drinker. There was extra wine in the fridge and a bottle of scotch on the shelf.
These clear observations with their easy rhythm have always given these stories momentum, particularly when the action starts:
I drank the rest of the beer. I could smash the bottle on the deck and cut the other restraint, but then what? D’Amico was younger and fitter than me and Serge obviously wasn’t the only crew member. Almost as if he read my mind, D’Amico stretched his leg and kicked the bottle across the deck.
But here they betray Hardy; he’s getting on. He’s not as quick as he used to be and he doesn’t relish the physical conflict any more. He gets stiff if he sits too long. And there’s no sex, even though sex is at the heart of his case. Sadly, this story doesn’t have one of those striking women who get tangled in Hardy’s work and in his bedsheets. They used to keep him at a distance, grudgingly asking for help when they wanted it and being forthright with their desire when they needed it. They were all the sexier for the shine of youth having come off them and they were real, so alive that you could taste the tang of cigarettes on their lips.
The rollies are gone for Hardy, too, and the booze doesn’t play much of a part now. Sure, he still drinks, but it’s not driving the action. There’s no more white wine and scrambled eggs for breakfast to help him think. No more beers to nurse, waiting for a client in an early opener. No more whisky to wash down his painkillers. No more counting how many he’s had so he can still match it with the hired muscle.
Once, Corris could summon a hymn to a Parramatta Road traffic jam that would make you wish you were there. That command has now gone. Maybe this has got to do with how he feels about Sydney; it’s been spruced up, but it’s a harder city to love. Harder for the Hardys of the world to chance their hand and get by. Once such a major character, here in Win, Lose or Draw the city is almost absent. Corris name-checks a few restaurants and pubs but you don’t get a feel for them, and even though he throws an admiring glance at the harbour, it’s no longer laced with a sneer from the wrong side of town. Hardy’s natural habitat, Glebe, has changed: beige walls, black trim and box hedges. It’s got dull. After resenting it for years, Hardy is resigned.
Corris seems aware that his control is slipping. He has always admonished his writing through his characters, getting them to lay into him when he can’t get a sentence right (‘you’ve been reading too much Chandler’), and he’s at it again here: ‘How about we make that the last cliché of the morning?’ It’s still funny, but more pointed now. Corris claims it’s his eyes that have made writing impossible, but his ear is failing, too. The joy of a Sydney or Melbourne or Adelaide accent coming so clearly off the page, when even in the flesh it can be hard to decipher, is another thing we miss in this book.
It’s a tough decision, when to retire. Go too early and good work is missed. Too late and there is the awful spectacle of a writer dying twice. That there is a small decline in Win, Lose or Draw doesn’t detract from what has come before it. If anything, it just throws into relief how good the others are and how difficult it is to make something so hard look effortless. Right at the end of this book, Hardy heads to South Sydney and a scruffy yacht club in Botany. After a stakeout and a confrontation, he gets a result. It’s not perfect, but his client is happy. And there, sitting on a bench overlooking the bay with its ‘slowly darkening water’, we leave Hardy, smiling.
Peter Corris Win, Lose or Draw Allen & Unwin 2017 PB 256pp $26.99
Tom Patterson lives in Sydney.
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