Exclusive Peter Corris extract
See you at the Toxteth: The best of Cliff Hardy and Corris on crime, published this week, brings together in one volume some of Peter Corris’s best short stories, selected by Jean Bedford, together with his ‘ABC of Crime Writing’ and a selection of the Godfather columns he wrote for NRB. We’re excited to bring you Jean Bedford’s introduction, plus a taster of some our favourite entries from the ‘ABC of Crime Writing’.
Introduction by Jean Bedford
Peter was a born storyteller. He didn’t have to work at it the way many of us writers do, every word blood squeezed out of stone.
As he said several times in interviews, he never really plotted – it was as if he were watching a film unfold before him and he simply wrote it down. (He did make sketchy notes after each writing session to guide himself.) Frustrating to live with, if you’re the blood-from-stone type.
He began writing as an historian. His MA thesis was about Aborigines and Europeans of western Victoria; his PhD thesis examined the Solomon Islands labour trade. Both were narrative histories – as he often said, it was the only sort of history he wanted, or felt able, to write.
He was a modest man. He wrote many books – 42 Cliff Hardys, eight Ray Crawleys, eight Brownings (drawing on historical knowledge and interest), three Luke Dunlops and various other specifically historical novels, as well as several ‘as-told-to’ biographies, among others. His short stories were widely anthologised and collected – yet he was never boastful. Self-deprecatingly, he called himself an ‘entertainer’ and never quite understood, or gave credence to, the public and critical acclaim for the place he had carved out as a uniquely sharp, but also appreciative, chronicler of Australia, Sydney and our times. He spoke for a generation that had grown from hope and prosperity to cynicism and social deprivation, from a generous society to a mean and self-protective one. As he also said several times, he never wanted to give solace to religion or to right-wing politics, and he was scathing about both, as well as the exploitative rich, in his books. Hardy was a great conduit for Peter’s own convictions.
His first Cliff Hardy novel,The Dying Trade, was rejected by several publishers who thought no one wanted to read contemporary Australian crime fiction. ‘Why don’t you write a thriller set in the Philippines?’ one asked. Fortunately, he finally hooked up with James Hall at McGraw Hill and the book was published. (It has since been republished by Text Classics.)
He already had the second one, White Meat, written, and the rest is history.
After his family, writing was the love of Peter’s life. He was never happier than when engaged on a book, and he was bored and depressed when there was nothing on the go. Fortunately, there usually was. He wrote for two short sessions a day, morning and afternoon, but was continuously preoccupied with the story – to the extent that I would sometimes ask, ‘Are you OK?’ when I saw him staring into space, suspecting a diabetic incident. ‘Yes, love. Just thinking about what happens next.’ Only other writers can understand this, perhaps? I often wonder about the non-writing partners of writers. Do they get it? Or do they feel shut out?
He also loved sport. He had been a promising amateur tennis player in his youth and in later life he took to golf. He liked watching the boxing, though his only painful attempt at it left him feeling it was not for him. I hate boxing and would sometimes ask what he saw in it. ‘Great skills,’ he said, ‘And also they’re braver than me. They don’t cry when they’re punched on the nose.’
His interest in boxing had a local flavour, too – he admired the way Indigenous boxers could make their mark and also some money (and keep it, if they were lucky), and this applied to Australian Rules football as well. He was an avid AFL follower – a lifetime Essendon supporter. In years when Essendon wasn’t doing all that well, he would sometimes yell at the TV, ‘More blackfellas! Recruit more blackfellas!’
What else did he love? Books, of course. Books, always. He always had at least one book on the go. Usually a novel and something non-fiction as well. His tastes were eclectic, much more than mine. He read a lot of literary fiction. He particularly liked biographies of people who ‘had done something’. This category included other writers, adventurers, politicians, kings and knaves. He liked Stephen Hawking (for his atheism) but admitted he couldn’t quite follow the argument. He loved Orwell and Somerset Maugham. He liked Hemingway and F Scott Fitzgerald, even when I said he was a literary predator on Zelda and he agreed. (But who can argue about The Great Gatsby?) He admired James Ellroy, but thought he’d gone feral in his last few books.
He didn’t read much fiction by women but he liked Ruth Rendell and the Morse series. He read Hilary Mantel, but hated the strange new narrative voice she’d introduced. He preferred C J Sansom’s Shardlake series about Cromwell.
He was very selective about the crime fiction he read – Michael Robotham, Barry Maitland, Lee Child (until the later books, when he got bored by them), Michael Connelly, Elroy … I tried to get him interested in the Nordics, but with limited success.
The stories in this collection represent some of Peter’s major interests.
An ABC of Crime, while tongue-in-cheek, shows his deep understanding of both crime fiction and the art of writing crime fiction, with his own prejudices and preferences clearly showing. He was disappointed that this couldn’t find a publisher – too short, and he didn’t want to rewrite. I think he envisaged a de luxe collectors’ edition, lavishly illustrated with Michael Fitzjames’s wonderful drawings. He would be extremely pleased that it now sees the light of day.
The selection here from his Godfather columns mainly concentrates on writing or reading-related themes. He wrote many more than these, on many other topics, for the Newtown Review of Books over nearly seven years.
In the last few years of his life, Peter’s eyesight deteriorated further, he became deaf and his heart condition worsened, as did his arthritis. He became virtually house-bound, except for doctors’ appointments and occasional – highly orchestrated – lunches with friends and the odd family event. His last book, Win, Lose or Draw, drew the final line under his writing career. He had entered it in 36-point type and still found it difficult to see what he had written. He was unable to cope with the edits to this book and Angela Handley from Allen & Unwin and Jo Jarrah I dealt with them, with constant reference to Peter.
He could no longer summon the concentration or energy it required to write at any length, though he continued to provide interesting, amusing and knowledgeable weekly Godfather columns for the Newtown Review of Books, usually of 500 words or so, which he could just cope with. A column on golf remains unpublished.
Not having a book on the boil left a huge gap in his life. Writing had been his main preoccupation for over 4o years and he missed it dreadfully. But as his physical debility increased, so did the range of activities he could perform or work up much interest in, and the gap writing had left seemed to shrink as health concerns grew.
In the last year of his life he did remain interested in politics and sport and always listened to the ABC’s Radio National and watched the footy every week.
In his final few weeks he was in a lot of pain from arthritis, which they didn’t think they could alleviate except with stronger painkillers. He was at the end of his tether by then – over-medicated, over-diagnosed, over-doctored. Cliched as it is, it was a blessed relief for him to die when he did. Not, perhaps, for those of us, family, friends and followers, he left behind.
But he also left behind a great legacy of pleasure and entertainment for a great many people through his books, and that’s a pretty big thing to leave.
Extracts from ‘An ABC of Crime Writing’
G is for guilt. Guilt is no longer as popular as it once was in crime fiction. Once guilt could cause characters to confess to crimes, to name accomplices and to commit suicide. Guilt operated strongly when more people espoused versions of Christianity where guilt is in-built. Catholics could avoid guilt by confession but this could help a story along by inspiring guilt in priests who came into the possession of guilty knowledge.
Characters in contemporary novels in more secular times either don’t feel guilt when psychopaths (see S for serial killer) are able to rationalise it away, being aware in a hard world that, like conscience, it is a luxury and a negative impulse. Approved characters feel guilty about infidelities, neglect of children, deception of colleagues, but few self-respecting murderers would feel guilty about having killed someone.
H is for hard-boiled. This is the accepted term for the tough school of crime writing that evolved in the United States in the 1890s and found its expression in magazines like Black Mask and True Detective. The first hard-boiled writer is generally thought to be Carroll John Daly, whose stories were dark, violent and uninterested in redemption. The origin of the term is interestingly discussed on the website The Straight Dope. It has a history dating back to the nineteenth century, had a vogue in post-World War I New York and was firmly attached to the seminal writing of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler.
The characteristic mode of hard-boiled stories is that they exhibit little of the emotional response of the characters to the events happening around them. Broadly speaking, the investigators are too busy surviving and fending off threats to describe their feelings or to admit to having them about the wider world. This characteristic, though modified, persists in contemporary crime writing (see P for pulp).
L is for love. Love suffuses crime novels—except those of James Ellroy, where nobody loves anybody or anything. Characters kill for love and die for love. They love their jobs, their houses, their money. Investigators love their wives (often estranged) and their children—more often one child and usually a daughter. Some investigators love the natural world, as James W. Hall’s Thorn loves the Florida Keys.
Morse loves classical music, Bosch loves jazz, RD Wingfield’s Jack Frost loves sausage sandwiches. Dr Watson, of course, loves Sherlock Holmes but doesn’t know it, while Robert B Parker’s Spenser loves Hawk but can’t admit it, even though Susan Silverman might be tolerant.
S is for story. Crime fiction is mercifully free of the kind of writing that does without story in favour of . . . who knows what?
The very best of the pulp writers, Jim Thompson, provided a definition that embraces everything from his noir classic, The Killer Inside Me (1952), to Romeo and Juliet. ‘There is only one story,’ Thompson wrote: ‘Things are not what they seem.’
Peter Corris See you at the Toxteth: The best of Cliff Hardy and Corris on crime Allen and Unwin 2019 PB 336pp $29.99
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