In The Spotlight: Peter Corris’ The Dying Trade

SpotlightHello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. There’ve been many different kinds of PI novels; it’s an integral part of the crime fiction tradition. PI novels have some things in common of course, but each fictional PI is a little different. In part that’s because PIs are products of (and therefore influenced by) their own cultures. To show you what I mean about this integration of the PI tradition and the impact of culture, let’s take a close look at Peter Corris’ Sydney-based PI Cliff Hardy. Let’s turn the spotlight on The Dying Trade, the first in the Hardy series.

The novel begins when Hardy gets a call from wealthy Bryn Gutteridge, who wants to discuss a private matter with him. Hardy agrees to at least discuss the case and goes to Gutteridge’s home. Gutteridge tells Hardy that his twin sister Susan is being harassed and threatened, and he wants it to stop. He’s willing to pay well for Hardy to find out who’s behind the harassment.

Hardy trusts no-one entirely, especially at the beginning of a case. So he begins with the members of the Gutteridge family. His thinking is that the threats and harassment may be related to something in the family past, so he persuades a reluctant Gutteridge to tell him about the family. Susan’s active in several social causes, and it doesn’t seem that she’s done anything herself that would make someone hate her enough to be harassed.  What’s more, she’s not in good health, and spends her share of time at a private clinic run by Dr. Ian Brave. The twins’ father Mark Gutteridge, who died in an apparent suicide four years earlier, was a great success in business, but according to his widow Ailsa Sleeman, he was a swindler who defrauded lots of people. So it’s possible that one of Mark Gutteridge’s enemies has decided to get revenge by targeting Susan.

Then Ailsa narrowly avoids being killed by a bomb in her car. Now it looks as though someone is definitely targeting the family. Then there’s another attempt on her life, and Susan disappears. Hardy has learned by now that there is a great deal of dysfunction among the Gutteridges, and several family secrets. Bit by bit, Hardy starts to piece together the family history and figures out how that is related to what’s happened, and how it all ties in with some of Mark Gutteridge’s business practices. In the end, he finds out the truth about this case.

The fact that Hardy finds out the truth doesn’t mean that this case has a happy ending. In many ways it doesn’t. No-one comes out of it all unscathed and in that sense, you could say this novel has a touch of noir. There is also violence in the novel, and some of it isn’t pretty at all. Neither is the solution to the mystery. There is plenty of ugliness in this story. But it’s not entirely bleak. The violence isn’t gratuitous and we also get the sense that life will go on. Certainly Cliff Hardy will go on.

And his character is an important element in the novel. Hardy is a former soldier who has certainly been impacted by his military experience, but isn’t incapacitated by it. He is forthright, with little patience for social niceties or the pretensions and affectations of the wealthy. He drinks – a lot – but he isn’t a stereotypical alcoholic detective who drowns his sorrows in his pint. Here’s what Charles Waterstreet says about Hardy:


‘Cliff Hardy represents the true Australian male at his best: a larrikin, despising greed and conservatism, living hand-to-mouth while cursing the affluence around him. He treats every client as if he or she were a potential hostile witness who will be giving evidence against him one dark day in the future. He has the perfect CV for a PI…and finally, like his creator, he comes equipped with an inbuilt bull**** detector.’


At times Hardy shows compassion, especially once he learns the real truth behind everything in this case. And that compassion sometimes leads him to take decisions that aren’t, strictly speaking, in accordance with the law. But at the same time, he sees the need for cops and law enforcement, and I can say without spoiling the story that he has nothing but contempt for cops who don’t do their jobs ethically.

Another element in this novel is the look it gives readers at the lives of the rich. There’s plenty of arrogance and decadence there, and we see how wealth puts one in the position of having an awful lot of influence. Hardy doesn’t like that very much, as you can imagine, and through his eyes we get a very cynical view of those who have money.

The context of this story is distinctly Australian. The wit is Australian and so is the culture and lifestyle of the characters. So is the way in which Hardly interacts with his friends and with those who help him on the case. And Corris clearly places the reader in Sydney and its suburbs, where most of the story takes place. In fact, it would actually be difficult to imagine this story taking place anywhere else.  It’s easy to see why Corris won a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Australian Crime Writers Association (ACWA), which also bestows the prestigious Ned Kelly Awards.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, this is a PI novel. So another important element in it is the way in which a PI goes about finding out details without a lot of official status. Since this novel was published in 1980, we also get a look at how PIs did their work in the days before the Internet and social media. For example, Hardy makes a great deal of use of contacts he’s made. He trades information with a journalist he knows, a cop he knows, and so on. Hardy also uses public records, library searches and sometimes just the telephone book.

The Dying Trade is a uniquely Australian story that introduces a quintessentially Australian PI. It features a sometimes-ugly mystery and a not-very-flattering look at the lives of the wealthy. There’s also wit in it though, and some solid, straightforward and sympathetic characters. But what’s your view? Have you read The Dying Trade? If you have, what elements do you see in it?



Coming Up On In The Spotlight


Monday 23 June/Tuesday 24 June – The Boundary – Nicole Watson

Monday 30 June/Tuesday 1 July – The Healer – Antti Tuomainen

Monday 7 July/Tuesday 8 July – A Blunt Instrument – Georgette Heyer


Filed under Peter Corris

22 responses to “In The Spotlight: Peter Corris’ The Dying Trade

  1. I enjoyed this overview, Margot. I have wanted to read Peter Corris, but have not yet. The Cliff Hardy series consists of 30-40 books?That is a little overwhelming, although I might be just as happy sticking with books from the 80’s. Can you skip around? Have you tried any of his other series or stand-alone books.

    • Tracy – Thanks for the kind words. You’re quite right that this is a long series; there are at the moment 38 books in it. In my opinion, you don’t have to read them in strict order if you just want to sample them. I’ll admit I’ve not tried Corris’ other series or his historical fiction. But I have enjoyed the Cliff Hardy novels I’ve read. I’ll be interested in what you think if you read one of them.

  2. What a hard-working and productive writer! This sounds great, I will have to investigate this author further – there’s obviously a lot to choose from….

    • Moira – There is indeed. Peter Corris is not only hard-working and prolific, but in my opinion, consistently strong. They’re not all of equal quality (I don’t know any authors who can do that). But overall, taken together, solid quality I think.

  3. THE DYING TRADE is significant in the history of Australian crime fiction as among the first of its kind to embrace an Australian setting. Prior the this, many Australian authors set their novels in the USA or UK. Andrew Nette also argues that in THE DYING TRADE, Corrus also resurrected the PI from literary obscurity in Australia – see here for an interesting post on the topic:

    A great choice for ‘In the Spotlight’ – thanks, Margot.

    • Angela – Thanks for the kind words. And thanks very much for that fascinating background. I knew Corris had done much for Australia’s literary life, but didn’t know all of this. Folks, do check out this interesting article, and while you’re at it, follow Andrew Nette’s terrific blog. And Angela Savage’s too.

  4. I have read some PI novels in the past. I really like Shirley Well’s PI series. I think it’s difficult to write a PI series because you have to find clues and interview suspects differently than if you were a police officer. I like the fact the PI is Australian too and has that wit. Thanks for the review.

    • Clarissa – I’m glad you reminded me of Shirley Wells. I must spotlight one of her novels. You’ve got a point about PI investigation too. It’s different to police investigation, and I like it when the author acknowledges that. I hope you’ll like Cliff Hardy if you ‘meet’ him.

  5. Maud Fitch

    Last year I discovered author Peter Corris and his private enquiry agent Cliff Hardy and couldn’t get enough. I’ve read about 18 books now, including The Dying Trade. The typical Aussie-ness is what I like the most, I know exactly where Hardy is coming from. I recognise the locations, the dialogue, and best of all, the grim humour. Hardy, who has matured along with Corris, is often unprincipled but always ends up doing the right thing. Newtown Review Of Books has a Peter Corris blog and TheReadingRoom has a Cliff Hardy book club. Australian crime writers are an undervalued resource and I can highly recommend at book called “If I Tell You I’ll Have To Kill You” which contains literary insights from many Aussie greats, new and old. And I’ll close with the comment that Corris didn’t like the movie of The Dying Trade which starred Bryan Brown. Personally I love Bryan Brown and I think he’d make an ideal older Cliff Hardy!

    • Maud – I love the Aussie-ness about this series too. And you’re right; although Hardy often doesn’t follow the rules, he does the right thing and I like that about him too. And thanks for mentioning other places where readers can find discussions of Corris’ work. Also thanks for mentioning If I Tell You…. I’ve heard some wonderful things about it, and now I’m even more keen to read it. I’m sorry to hear that Corris didn’t like the film, but I’d still like to see it…

  6. Maud Fitch

    Since video stores have gone the way of the dinosaurs you could probably source the movie on the internet. As you’ve mentioned, mystery authors tread the minefield of the electronic era. Cliff Hardy has been known to fumble and drop his mobile phone, but on the whole he’s moved with the IT times. He no longer relies on his cronies in places like the transport department although he still has police contacts. Really, where would a private investigator be without his police contacts?!

    • Maud – Agreed! PIs and police do need to work together. And I think it’s a sign of a well-written and enduring series when the author and protagonist are able to keep up to date (more or less) with the realities of things like modern technology. The other option of course is for the character not to age in real time, but to stay in one particular era. And that can work well if it’s well-written. It’s definitely a mine field for the author, as you say. And I will have to look up that film.

  7. Sounds like an interesting way to vicariously visit Sydney.

  8. This sounds like another interesting author who I’d not heard about. I like PI mysteries as they are not bound by the same processes and procedures as the police.

    • Cleo – And Cliff Hardy certainly isn’t. At the same time though, he’s really not a ‘punch first and ask questions later’ type of PI. And one thing I really like about these novels is that they give the reader a very authentic look at Sydney and at that culture.

  9. Col

    I have a fair few of these lurking, but shamefully haven’t yet got to them. One of these years!

  10. Maud Fitch

    I’ve noticed that as the series progresses, Cliff Hardy travels further afield. He visits places like US (where he has a heart attack much the same as Mr Corris) and Ireland. However, I don’t think this alters the readability factor.

  11. Pingback: Classic crime in the blogosphere – June 2014 | Past Offences Classic Crime Fiction

  12. Pingback: Farewell to the Godfather of Australian Crime Writing | jml297

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