Farewell to the Godfather of Australian Crime Writing

On 30 August 2018, Peter Corris passed away. Corris is widely regarded as the godfather of Australian crime writing. His first Cliff Hardy novel came out in 1980, The Dying Trade. Corris went on to write over forty Hardy novels, along with an extensive collection of other fiction and non-fiction titles. A historian by trade, he was an academic and journalist before writing became his full-time profession.

I discovered Cliff Hardy in the last six years, enjoying his investigations which traversed Sydney and with various parts of the state and country along with occasional overseas jaunts. Hardy was an old-style private investigator with connections to police as well as darker elements in society. He had his own style of justice and it wasn’t always conventional. Hardy had a best mate in the police force as well as a number of love interests over the years. There was an ex-wife and a daughter, who Hardy was unaware of until they met when she was an adult. Their relationship, although initially awkward, was developed with realistic resonances over time. I enjoyed these books as a reader and a listener: many of the audiobooks were read by Peter Hosking, who will remain as the gruff voice of Hardy in my mind. There is a good overview of the Hardy series here, and a spotlight review of The Dying Trade here by the marvellous Margot Kinberg.

In the last few years, Corris had been a regular contributor to the Newtown Review of Books blog. Most Fridays there would be a brief but thoughtful article from Corris on all manner of things. Some that come to mind are his posts on musical influences in his life, audiobooks (his eyesight diminished significantly which impacted his ability to both read and write), places that he had lived, and gardens that his wife, Jean, had created in their various homes over the years. Sport also featured, along with people that he had met at various stages across his career.

I will not be alone in missing the writing and thoughtfulness of Peter Corris, and my Fridays won’t be quite the same without his regular presence.

[Photo: Sydney Harbour – Sydney was Hardy’s city and he knew it well]

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This Reading Life

I love reading. It has been a constant source of pleasure and joy in my life. From the fairy tales and fables of my childhood to reading novels, short stories and non-fiction, some of my happiest moments have been spent lost in the world of words.

These days I tend to mix my reading up a bit in terms of format. I still have many physical books, but I’m also accumulating ebooks and audiobooks. Depending on the book and the narrator, sometimes I will read a book across both formats, enjoying the simple pleasure of reading before sleep, or just for the sheer joy of it, and being able to keep the story going by listening to it whilst I’m doing other things. There are times when an accented narration makes it a bit hard for me to catch some words and I end up returning to the written format (this happened recently with Adrian McKinty’s first Sean Duffy book). It can also happen in reverse. I was finding it difficult to find the rhythm of The Sellout by Paul Beatty, but after listening to a sample of Prentice Onayemi’s narration, it suddenly felt right and I was able to enjoy the book on a level that had been missing beforehand.

Sometimes I switch back to the written word for a sense of speed too: it is possible to listen to audiobooks at a faster pace but that can sound like an old chipmunk record and it doesn’t really help convey the serious tone of the narration. I also enjoy being able to highlight passages in ebook versions, and sometimes make notes as I go which I rarely do with books.

There is always something that I want to read next, but sometimes, especially after a particularly affecting book, I like to read something lighter. Almost like a palate cleanser. This might be a thriller or detective style novel, and series seem to work well for this kind of intervention between more serious, literary novels.

I also like to peruse the online catalogues of the Blue Mountains Library, as there is usually an audiobook or ebook that has been on my peripheral which then becomes available. They are also a good source of classics; books that I might have on my shelves or have been meaning to read, and then a more mobile version is available. A recent find has been experiencing My Place by Sally Morgan as an audiobook which was excellent on many levels. And there is the added incentive of reading it within three weeks, although extensions are possible. Deadlines can be motivating for readers too.

What does your reading life look like?

[Photo:  box of books at preloved book fair]

Writing Prompt: Dr Who on the Highway

Walter had his foot flat to the floor but still the car behind him beeped. Short, staccato slaps on the horn to register disapproval at his driving speed. He pressed down on the accelerator again but it made no difference. If anything, the speedo was slipping backwards. Now the horn behind him was continuous, a whimpering wail of displeasure. Walter watched cars speeding past; all four lanes were chockers. Damn Sydney traffic. There was no such thing as a quiet Sunday drive anymore.

A glimpse in the rearview mirror showed the empurpled face of the driver behind him. In the interests of self-preservation, Walter flicked his blinker on and limped onto the next shoulder on the highway. He was barely off the road when a half-eaten carton of fast food landed with a thump on his bonnet, along with a stream of vindictive comments about his parentage as the car that had been behind him finally passed by.

Walter shut his eyes and folded himself around the steering wheel. He only just resisted the temptation to rock himself back and forth. He had to pull himself together. He was a doctor, a respected academic. He shouldn’t be so bothered by a little light road rage.

After a minute or two, he felt calmer. He turned the car off, listening to the ticking of the engine as traffic hurtled past. He wound down a window then opened the door, climbing out into the hot summer morning. He walked around his old dark green Toyota Corona. He loved his car. Every scratch and scrape had a story. So what if it couldn’t speed along like the more modern cars?

His kids mocked his attachment to Betty, as he called her. Every now and then they’d badger him to upgrade, to get something with air conditioning that worked all year round rather than intermittent heat in winter. And power steering. Imagine! When he said he couldn’t afford it they laughed at him. A Professor of Business Finance should drive something better. He’d respond with a detailed treatise on depreciation and asset values until they gave it up as a lost cause.

He headed over to a scrap of shade. He’d wait a minute or two before getting back on the road with Betty. It was his usual Sunday pilgrimage to visit Mother. Years ago the kids would join him for the drive, but as they’d gotten older they were less interested in visiting their grandmother. At times he didn’t blame them. Even he could see she was hard work.

A loud, shrill sound carried over the traffic noise and Walter stepped back to the car to grab the phone from the car door. Was he late? Mother called if he was less than punctual.

‘Hello?’

‘Is that Doctor Who?’

‘Yes.’

‘Really?’

Walter sighed. This old chestnut. ‘This is Doctor Walter Who speaking. Who is calling?’

‘Sorry, Doctor. We weren’t sure if it was a real name. Sometimes people are a little, well, creative when they fill out their entries.’

‘Entries? What’s this all about?’ Walter frowned, glancing at his watch. He needed to get back on the road or he’d be late.

‘Beg your pardon. My name is Ellie Fraser, and I’m calling on behalf of the Red Cape Fundraising Committee. I have some good news for you.’

‘The what? I don’t know anything about a fundraiser.’

‘But you bought a winning ticket, Dr Who. In our fundraising lottery. You’ve won a brand new car!’

‘What?’ Walter dragged a hand through his receding hair.

‘You’ve won a Kia Picanto. It’s the first prize in our lottery.’

Walter shook his head. He rarely bought lottery tickets, knowing what he did about the statistical chance of winning anything. But there were some tickets that his mother had asked him to buy. Funds were being raised for a new bus for outings in her retirement village. He’d paid scant attention to the prizes and had paid for a book of tickets simply to please her.

And now, with all of this kerfuffle, he’d be late. Mother would never forgive him.

This piece was written as part of a writing group activity. We each selected cards at random for setting (a busy highway), time (a hot summer morning), character (Dr Who), situation (a lottery win) and theme (forgiveness). It was challenging but fun to try and incorporate these elements in a writing prompt activity with the timer ticking away.

[Photo: writing workbook]

NaNoWriMo Learnings

I decided in mid-October to join in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) in November. It was time to do something about some of my longer writing ideas, and NaNoWriMo seemed like perfect timing.

Due to other commitments, I didn’t have time to plot out the idea that I was intending to write about. I had some vague thoughts about character development and some of the key characters involved, but not a definite idea as to how it might all play out. But I put these concerns aside and decided that it would be good to write and see where the story took me.

I kept my preparation simple. I watched a couple of videos about NaNoWriMo, specifically around time management. Advice that I adopted included turning off banner notifications on social media and hiding the apps that I tend to go to for a quick distraction fix.

I made sure that I had writing software Scrivener synchronised across my devices. I needed to be flexible and to be able to write wherever I was. For part of NaNoWriMo, I was travelling about and didn’t always have great mobile or WiFi reception. I was able to keep working on my phone or tablet as I went from place to place, and even in areas of indifferent reception, I was able to synchronise my work so I could pick it up again when needed. I found that I was writing in really small time slots. Waiting for a couple of minutes? Time enough to tap out a line or two, or make a note as to where the next thread of the story was to go. It helped to keep me connected to the story and feel that no time was wasted.

One of the things that made the biggest impact was using the Pomodoro Technique. This involves working for 25-minute blocks with short breaks. This can be repeated for a set number of cycles before there is a longer break. I started using this on a Sunday afternoon when I really wanted to nap rather than write. But I could sit for 25 minutes and write a word or two, surely? When the ideas were flowing, I was surprised to see that I could type about 1200 words in a 25-minute block. Over time this averaged out around 1000 words and it showed me that I could write effectively in short blocks. This tapped into writing under time pressure, and knowing that I only expected myself to concentrate and ignore everything else for less than half an hour made it much easier to adopt this approach.

From the outset, I knew that whether I hit the word target or not, I would have written more by the end of the November than if I hadn’t participated in NaNoWriMo. This was certainly the case. What I didn’t expect was to be able to sharpen my writing approach in ways that provide confidence for the future. I can use some of these learnings to maintain my writing practice, and many of my preconceived notions of obstacles to writing have been satisfactorily undermined. It was well worth the effort to discover this!

When did you last participate in a creative challenge, and what surprised you?

[Photo: old typewriter]

On The Joys of the Written Word

Recently I had my blog posts for 2017 printed. My usual process is to print off a draft copy, edit, reprint, edit and hopefully have a final version of the post that I’m happy with. This copy, in a rough black and white form, is kept in a folder. Occasionally I go back and reprint a post in colour, especially now that I am using more photos in my posts.

Last year I looked into having some of my posts published in a format that I could keep handy. I ended up having three small books printed: one for my alphabet adventures, one for mountain musings and the final one on words and creativity. They were in A5 size, soft covered and a delight to receive. It really was a different experience to see the posts arranged in order, especially as when I was writing them I was alternating between topics.

Months pass by and many blog posts later, I thought it would be good to have a copy of the posts from 2017 in a single volume. One of the things about content is that it accumulates. There are times when something comes to my attention and I remember that I’ve written a post on that topic. WordPress is great with the ability to search a blog using a keyword and it is easy to be reacquainted with something that has been written previously. But in this format, the posts are still, well, virtual. Being able to flick through a body of work with it in hand is a different experience to scrolling through links online.

So I had a look through the BlookUp site and selected a hardcover book style to hold a year’s worth of words. It is simple to export the posts from a set period, and there is some scope for editing the content for things like formatting errors. I then designed the front and back cover, adding a little content and photographs, and saved the work. I thought it best to leave it overnight as I contemplated the cost for the physical printing and postage from France. Was it self-indulgent to go down this path?

The next day I felt no different. A cursory glance through the book content – I had amended what I could, within reason – and I proceeded to order the book. The timeframe for delivery was 15 days which I thought was generous. The last order had taken seemingly ages to arrive, but this time I had the book in my hands within a fortnight. Not bad considering it had to be printed and sent to Australia.

It is perfect. Well, I should say that any errors in the book are mine as my hastiness in editing and ordering could have been tempered a little. But it is hard to convey the buzz I felt when holding this book which represented a year of words and photos that meant something to me. The pages are glossy and the photos pop with colour. Already I am looking to my 2018 edition, and I haven’t finished the year off yet!

My learnings would be to run a draft copy and really look closely at the formatting of quotes and poems in particular. I had picked up one photo as a header early in 2017 but couldn’t work out how to fix it without updating the post itself and running the export again. At the time it was too much effort. I might take a bit more time with it next year.

But to say I’m really impressed with the results is an understatement.

Do you keep a copy of any of your favourite posts?

{Photo: front cover of blog book for 2017}

Flash Fiction: Owl

Owen wasn’t the sharpest owl in the tree, but it wasn’t his fault. His Mum said it was because he fell out of the nest when he was only a few days old. She reckoned that he landed on his head and that was why his eyesight was a bit out of alignment. It certainly made flying a challenge. He could still remember his first few attempts. The sense of trepidation, the trembling of his wings as he flung them out, mimicking the deep swoops and thrusts that he’d seen the others do. The first few wing beats were spectacular, or so they told him afterwards. Or perhaps they were spectacular when compared to his spiralled tumble to the ground.

But over time he’d found a way to adapt. By squinting, just a little, his vision seemed to balance out. When the others took off at night he was the last to leave. It was better that way. Less chance of somehow tangling his way into another owl’s flight path. This had happened a few times and the indignant squeaks and squawks were worse than any trapped prey that he’d heard.

And Owen found it easier to whistle, just a little, as he flew. This had caused rumblings of discontent within the parliament and he’d been lectured several times on the importance of silence in flight. It wasn’t all about the stereotype, or so he was told, but there wasn’t a lot of tolerance for an owl who whistled.

He had to admit that it was impressive to watch other owls go about their nightly hunts. The extraordinary vision and finely tuned senses picked up any movement within microseconds with a degree of accuracy which was breathtaking, especially for the prey. The typical image of an owl was still, quiet and wise, but he knew that it was their ability as honed killers that deserved praise.

Over time he trained himself to whistle after the kill. He had learned the importance of fitting in, mostly, with his fellow owls.

{Photo: three green owls}

November is NaNoWriMo

Like many writers around the world, I will be participating in NaNoWriMo this year. This annual event calls out a challenge to writers to put procrastination aside and commit to writing 50,000 words in a month. A daily average of 1,666 words, give or take, will get you to the finish line. But as with all memorable experiences, it is more about the journey than the destination.

This will be my third NaNoWriMo. I don’t do it every year for various reasons. The majority of my writing is in the short story form, so writing 50,000 words in a month doesn’t really fit in with that approach. But there are often stories or ideas that cannot be confined to a restricted word count. Sometimes it is good to explore an idea over a longer format, to give characters a chance to develop and discover things along the way.

The word count is a challenge but I’m not overly concerned about it as I was able to meet the target at my last two attempts. It was easier the second time as I knew what to expect, and on days when the words were flowing, I made the most of it to provide a buffer for the days when life got in the way. There is comfort in knowing that even if the word count isn’t met, I will have more words written by the end of November than if I’d not participated.

And I do like a creative challenge. Since May I have been writing a minimum of 250 words a day on various topics. This has included short stories, flash fiction, blog posts and general personal rants that help to keep my sanity in check. It has helped me feel connected to writing, and on most days I write beyond the minimum. There are some days when it is a bit of a challenge but I’ve surprised myself by maintaining the momentum. Ideas seem to pop up throughout the day, or I’ll wake up with a clear idea of what I want to write, which is a special kind of thrill.

The prospect of writing 50,000 words in a month is a challenge, even with a regular writing habit to draw strength from. But I like the idea of pushing myself creatively for a month, to give writing extra focus, and to be part of a worldwide community of writers who are also out there, scribbling and tapping and creating worlds of their own at the same time.

Are you participating in NaNoWriMo – or some other creative challenge?

[Photo: a reminder that you can do hard things, spotted at Lane Cove]

Writing Prompt: It Would Only Take A Couple of Clicks …

It would only take a couple of clicks to do it, to get ahead of Jacko, but I wasn’t sure I should do it. It wasn’t out of pity. Don’t get me wrong. Jacko was a bastard and most of the crew would be pleased to beat him at a session, let alone over a day. He was the gun shearer in the area and everyone knew it. His reputation seeped beyond the district boundaries so that people passing through knew of him if they had friends or relatives in the surrounding towns.

We’d matched each other, sheep for sheep, all day. At first he’d hammed it up, singing out and showboating with his shears, sighing loudly as our calls for ‘sheepo’ came increasingly in tandem. Then, after morning smoko, he started sledging. I ignored him, which made him worse. But I focused my energy on working faster and cleaner, wasting less movement and needing less tar. By lunch we were even again.

He shouldered me as he passed me on the way back, and the afternoon was full of sly tricks and sleights. We were down to the last two sheep of the day, and the rest of the crew had backed off, some cleaning their gear as we went for it, click for click. I was sweating so much I could hardly see, my hands slick with greasy wool that filled the pocked holes where burrs had torn at my skin. All I could see were sheep bellies and chests and legs and a blur of khaki eyes, boggled by fear.

I could hear Jacko grunt with effort, then curse as his sheep buckled. It happens. They’re not as stupid as people think. They pick up on emotions like other animals do.

To hell with it. I gave one last burst of clicks, tossed off the fleece and sent the sheep on its way. The shed erupted in a cheer as I unbent my back, every muscle screaming in protest. As the cheer faded I heard Jacko’s final click. He didn’t raise his eyes to mine. It wasn’t easy to be beaten by a girl.

[Photo: sign at Rydalmere]

Book Review: Taboo by Kim Scott

Sometimes books cross your path at the right time. Taboo had been recommended by a fellow avid reader as one of several books that I should keep an eye out for. When I started to read Taboo, it coincided with a week with some travel and much time in the air and waiting for flights or on trains was spent with Gerry, Tilly and Dan in the south west of Western Australia.

Recently ABC aired a series called Mystery Road, which is about two young men including a local Aboriginal who go missing from a large cattle station. The background setting is a small town with a mix of locals and backpackers frequenting the local pub. One of the characters is a young woman who was sexually abused when aged thirteen. There are echoes of streets with houses and yards that need attention, a community in disarray and the sexual abuse of children in Taboo as well, but there is also a strong sense of trying to understand and reconcile what has happened in the past.

Whilst there are various viewpoints and characters in the book, the main players are Dan, Tilly and Gerry. Dan is the link with the white colonial past. Recently widowed, he lives on the family farm which is run down and eking an existence in lean times. He is on his own with two small dogs for company. His brother, Malcolm, keeps an eye on him and their sibling bond includes a religious connection. There are early hints of a disconnect between Dan and his son, Doug. There is also a sense of foreshadowing: Dan had thought he’d spotted Doug somewhere, in the city perhaps, and was surprised at his appearance, his shaved head, and even at a glance could see that there was something amiss both with Dan and the woman he was with.

Tilly is at the heart of the story. In her early teens, her mother tells her that her father is Aboriginal, in jail, and wants to see her. They travel together to see him but Tilly is left to go into the jail alone and is guided by an Aunty who she meets there. Aunty Cheryl is to have a significant impact on her life. Tilly meets her father and continues to go to see him with Cheryl’s help and encouragement. Cheryl offers a different way of life, something more exotic and glamorous than what her mother can provide.

Gerry is the link between Dan and Tilly. Gerald is one of the twins – his twin brother is called Gerard. We meet Gerry just as he leaves jail, having been inside for a few months due to a misdemeanour of Gerard’s. It isn’t always clear in some parts of the book, especially from Tilly’s perspective, which twin is the good twin and which is the other as they both are called Gerry and are nearly identical in appearance and dress. Even tattoos are similar. During his stints in jail, Gerry has connected with Tilly’s father, Jim Coolman. Jim has lived a life in and out of jail, marred by drugs and drink and violence. But he has found a sense of connection and belonging by bringing the local Noongar language back into use. Jim has been running sessions in the jail and he speaks to Tilly of the importance of language in their visits.

The early introduction to Tilly is when she travels to a remote location to be picked up by Gerry (both Gerrys are there) and shuttled out to the ironically named Hopetown. There is to be an unveiling at a Peace Park, a plaque to acknowledge the town as the site of a massacre of Aborigines in the late 1800s. The actual site of the massacre is on Dan’s family farm.

There are elements of the supernatural in Taboo, with the people of the past never really that far away. Dan sees his wife in a doorway and is comforted by her presence. Throughout the landscape around Hopetown and Dan’s farm, in particular, there are quickening shadows at various times, including when Noongar people are walking around the property to visit old watering holes and the like. Tilly feels their presence too, especially when danger circles around her.

There are symbols and echoes of images. Early on, Dan reaches for a smooth stone on a windowsill which has been warmed by the sun. Towards the end of the novel, there are stones in Gerald’s pockets as he makes a pilgrimage of sorts across the pathways of his ancestors. When he stops to drink water, he sometimes exchanges one stone for another, then resumes his journey with them heavy in his pockets. There is a circularity to the narrative, starting with an out of control truck with unidentified occupants which becomes clear at the end of the novel. There is also the repetitive cycle of abuse by the powerful over those without power, across the generations. And a sense of the visiting mob being unwelcome in their own country, being met a couple of times with resistance and it is made clear that they should move along, that they have no right to be there.

But the book also brims with moments of humour and sharp observation. It is difficult not to wince at the naive enthusiasm and obliviousness of the newly appointed Aboriginal Support Officer at Tilly’s school who seems determined to create a token performance of dancing, art and didgeridoo.

‘Lots of people lost their culture down this way. We can fix that up. I’ll get some workshops, some classes or something happening. We’ll have excursions – we had one this morning, to the Aboriginal Community College.’ She named the suburb. ‘But it was terrible, those poor kids.’

‘How do you mean?’ asked Tilly.

‘None of them could play didj. Some of us, some of our kids, will have to go and teach them.’

‘Didj doesn’t come from down here.’

‘Oh, Tilly, but it’s so Aboriginal. Didgeridoo means Aborigine to everyone, surely!’

‘Well, I don’t know.’

Then there is the warmth and kinship of the busload of Noongar people, collected by Wally the bus driver, for the gathering and unveiling of the plaque at the Peace Park. One of my favourite minor characters was Beryl, one of those bossy women who help ensure people are fed and things happen, but with an edge that cuts through any insincerity. There is the cheeky elder, Wilfred, who makes bird puppets and recognises the importance of Tilly as one of the next generation, ‘tough and precious’.

It was the kind of book which stays with you, and which challenges assumptions and creates characters that you wonder about, long after the final page is read.

There is an excellent review of this book by Lisa Hill here.

[Photo: The Company of Trees by Ro Murray and Mandy Burgess spotted at the Blue Mountains Cultural Centre, Katoomba]

Poem: Ode to Spring

It must be spring
The jasmine’s out
And all the bees
Are buzzing about
The sun is bright
And wouldn’t you know
I think I can hear
The garden grow
I close my eyes
And what do I see?
Acres of blooms
All around me
Freesias and pansies
And daisies too
Jonquils and roses
To name but a few

And then it begins
With the slightest twitch
My poor old nose
Begins to itch
First just a little
Then quite a lot
My vision shrinks
To the size of a dot
I distract myself
Looking up at the light
And give myself
A hell of a fright
The sneeze when it comes
Knows no bounds
I lose myself
In a wall of sound

The dog jumps up
And leaves the room
Frightened no doubt
By the sonic boom
And the cat leaves too
Giving one last glare
Before she struts
Into the spring air
I sniffle and sniff
Then dig deep
For a tissue to mop
The tears that I weep
I curse myself
I must be insane
To always forget
That spring is a pain

Inspired by writing group prompt of ‘pain’.

[Photo: flowers from the garden]