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