Considering that the hard-boiled private eye novel is one of the distinctly American genres, it's perhaps surprising that one of the best current practitioners of the form is the Australian Peter Corris, with his detective, Cliff Hardy. If we forgive Hardy his affection for wine, which we'll assume is a cultural deal, and a long running relationship, which fortunately never quite achieved Susan Silvermanesque proportions, he's really quite traditional. Of course, it helps that Australia isn't all that different from America, particularly in terms of its cultural heritage. Corris has written 23 Cliff Hardy books, but they are not generally available in the U. S., which is a shame.
From what I've read of them, O'Fear is a fairly representative entry in the series, which is to say, it's quite good. Hardy is hired after an old friend dies in a car accident :
'Barnes Todd has left you some money.'
'To find out who murdered him.'
I sat back in the chair. Sackville unhooked his glasses and set them down gently on top of the file. He massaged the bridge of his nose and tried to look grave, but there was a flicker of amusement in his eyes. It irritated me, the way a lot of small things had lately. What's so funny? I thought. I'd been in this business for nearly fifteen years. I'd found murderers before, hadn't I? Well, stumbled across a couple. 'How much money?' I said harshly.
'Ten thousand dollars. His wife's not too happy about it.'
Hardy learns that with Todd's last breath he gasped the word : "O'Fear..." He recognizes this enigmatic phrase as the beginning of the name of a notorious, but relatively harmless, scoundrel named O'Fearna, who is currently in jail, awaiting trial. His bail just happens to be $10,000.
And he's off...sexy widows, unsavory secrets, random corpses, brutal henchmen, crooked lawyers, the whole nine yards. But what makes the book a real throwback is Hardy's vulnerability :
...I had strewn the contents of my wallet across the desk. I looked at the credit cards and the meagre amount of cash and the creased driver's licence and suddenly felt small and isolated. My only backup in the office was an answering machine; my only means of transport was the Falcon; I had an illegal Colt .45 and a properly licenced Smith & Wesson .38 for firepower. No helicopters, no armoured vans, no shotguns. Who was I kidding? This was too big for me.
If Corris does not quite have the comedic chops of a Robert B. Parker or a Robert Crais, he more than compensates by restoring the dramatic tension of a hero who is truly a lone knight, who can be hurt, even killed, and who has no one he can really trust.
This is good stuff, in a classic vein. Read him, if you can the books.
GRADE : A