Peter Corris calls time on the iconic fictional detective Cliff Hardy

Farewell private investigator Cliff Hardy, as Peter Corris calls it quits. Photo: LORRIE GRAHAM
Farewell private investigator Cliff Hardy, as Peter Corris calls it quits. Photo: LORRIE GRAHAM

One of the greatest figures of contemporary Australian detective fiction, the hard-nosed private investigator, Cliff Hardy, has solved his last case after creeping blindness left his creator, Peter Corris, unable to continue writing.

Win, Lose or Draw, the 42nd book in the series, will be Hardy's last hurrah, and Corris's last novel, an announcement that carries similar weight to Ian Rankin's retirement of the dour Edinburgh detective John Rebus, though he later brought Rebus back.

"I've been a type-1 diabetic since I was 16 years old, so that's getting on nearly 58 years and in my 30s I developed retinopathy, which is a disease of the retina consequent of diabetes," Corris says.

"My eyesight was saved by the laser and so I was able to function with reasonable eyesight well into my 60s. But then the scars from the laser work began to thicken and cut down on the amount of retina to work with, so that now I am legally blind and I have all sorts of difficulties. I can still get around and manage most things, but not the intricacies of writing."

Well before Sydney celebrated its rough criminal edges in television reality dramas, Corris was writing within the conventions of hard-boiled detective fiction, providing what crime-fiction reviewer Sue Turnbull describes as "searing and wry commentary on social injustice, corruption, and urban development".

Introduced to readers in 1980 in The Dying Trade, the private detective Hardy drank to excess – white wine and soda before breakfast, a gin and tonic and another bottle of wine for lunch, followed by a brandy and soda – and consorted with hookers, pimps and dealers in a line of business that wandered far from the rule of law.

The Hardy of Win, Lose or Draw is older and wiser, while still enjoying a glass or three of red wine and carrying the scars of gun shot wounds, a busted nose and a quadruple bypass.

Corris is 74 but Hardy is much younger, the author having observed the rule laid down by the American crime writer Ross Macdonald that a serial character should age at one-third the natural rate.

Corris was inspired to write Hardy by the likes of Macdonald, Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, the so-called holy trinity of hard-boiled detective fiction, whom he had read during his school and university years.

The one-time literary editor of The National Times took four years to find a publisher. "It was rejected by a great many," Corris says. "They said that Australian crime readers wanted to read about New York or London or LA possibly but they didn't want to read about Sydney, or they didn't want to read about Australia. And so I battled against that but managed eventually to get through that obstacle and prove that they were wrong."

Hardy's exploits were brought to the big screen by Bryan Brown in The Empty Beach, "not an altogether happy" screenwriting experience, which eventually bore little resemblance to the book but brought Corris new readers and recognition as the godfather of Australian detective fiction.

"My stand-up comedy line I like to use is the money enabled me to put a deposit on a house and I preferred the house to the film," he says.

The Cliff Hardy novels speak to Australian readers in a language they understand, and present a character of basic decency and doggedness that once was the spirit of the Australian character, says Gabrielle Lord, a fellow crime writer and friend.

"Peter has left a huge body of work and I guess now, after 50 years or so in the game, he can hang up his badge and his gun with a feeling of satisfaction. But his multitudinous fans might not agree."

Corris's decision to break the bond with his creation came well after finishing this latest novel 18 months ago and so there is no metaphorical sunset for Hardy. That's how the author prefers it.

"I wouldn't have wanted to write a kill-him-off book because a few of the authors I know that I've read and am acquainted with did that and didn't make a success of it," Corris says.

"I don't think readers actually want to have the protagonist killed off so I don't think I would have done it that way. What did Sherlock Holmes do? He retired to beekeeping on the Suffolk Downs. I can't see Cliff really returning to the Central Coast. Imaginatively, I couldn't see a way to do it and thankfully I didn't have to."

As for Corris, he is not giving up writing entirely. He will continue his weekly column, The Godfather, for the book review site The Newtown Review of Books, co-founded by his wife, author Jean Bedford. Win, Lose or Draw is dedicated to Bedford: "The first one was for her and so is the last."

"That's all I can do now because the whole manipulation of the computer, the menus, the spellcheck are just too difficult for me to do. But that keeps my fingers moving and gives me things to think about and play with and have jokes with. It ain't too bad."

Win, Lose or Draw

Peter Corris

Allen & Unwin, $29.99

This story Peter Corris calls time on the iconic fictional detective Cliff Hardy first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.