For those not familiar with the character of Cliff Hardy, private investigator, he is a creation of Peter Corris and first appeared in the novel The Dying Trade in 1980. Since then he has been releasing Cliff Hardy stories regularly – at least thirty of them (that’s how many I have, but I am sure there are more). The Black Prince was about the third Cliff Hardy novel that I read. The first two I read were The Dying Trade and White Meat – books one and two in the Cliff Hardy series, and published in 1980 and 1981 respectively. I can barely remember them now, but I recall that they were very good (especially The Dying Trade) and elaborately labyrinthine – in the best tradition of Raymond Chandler. But by the time of The Black Prince, Cliff Hardy (and I suspect Peter Corris) had mellowed. Not in a bad way, but a comfortable way.
The Black Prince has twists and turns, as all good P.I. thrillers should have, but it is not told in as fractured fashion as the earlier entries in the series. It is smoother, and more accessible, and as a character, Hardy seems more ‘lived in’. Put simply, the story is damn pleasurable to read. Well, at least that’s my opinion. However, if you were to suggest that maybe the series had lost some of its ferocious bite – and it was the rough edges that made the first few books so great – I would not argue with you.
As the story opens, Private Investigator, Cliff Hardy is feeling his age. He is slightly out of shape and can’t quite take the rough stuff like he used to. To combat this, he signs on as a member at a local gym in Leichardt, which is run by a West Indian, named Wes Scott. Scott has a son named Clinton (the titular ‘Black Prince’), who is a top flight athlete, and studying at University. On the odd occasion, Clinton even helps out around the Gym.
During one of Hardy’s workouts, he notices that Wes looks troubled, and enquires to the cause. Wes explains that he hasn’t seen his son in a couple of weeks and he hasn’t been able to contact him. Obviously, Clinton’s mother is anxious too. Hardy offers to help – for pay of course! So Hardy makes a few enquires, and it doesn’t take long to find out what has caused the disappearance. It seems that Clinton’s girlfriend, Angela Cousins (who is also a sporty athletic type) is in a coma at the local hospital. She had been taking illegal steroids to improve her sporting competitiveness, and she had a extremely bad reaction. When Hardy stumbles on this information, Angela is about to have her life support switched off.
In a rage, Clinton has vowed to find those behind the bad drugs and kill them. And initially that’s all Hardy can find out. Clinton, to all intents and purposes has varnished off the face of the earth, but there is no evidence to suggest that he is dead. Hardy reluctantly calls a halt to the case as all his leads have run dry.
Several months later, some new information surfaces, and Hardy is once again on the trail. This leads him to Bingara in Southern NSW, and then up to a remote aboriginal settlement in Queensland. Then finally back to Sydney, and into the shady world of illegal boxing.
When it comes to the boxing, Peter Corris knows what he is talking about. He may be well known for his Cliff Hardy and Browning stories, but he also wrote a non-fiction book about prize-fighting in Australia in the early 1980s (I think? It’s very hard to come by these days). Corris’ knowledge and enthusiasm for boxing comes through in his prose – and the sequence at the underground smoko is rich with atmosphere. American readers may be thinking ‘Smoko’ – what’s he on about? In America underground fights are called ‘Smokers’, but here in Australia, we call them ‘Smokos’.
The Black Prince is a great piece of Australian genre fiction and I recommend it highly.
For more on Cliff Hardy, and author Peter Corris, check out Shane Maloney’s article (and interview) The Man and His City.
I have not read any of Peter Corris’ Ray ‘Creepy’ Crawley series – which consists of, The Vietnam Volunteer, The Time Trap, The Azanian Action, The Japanese Job, The Cargo Club, The Kimberley Killing, The Baltic Business, and Pokerface, but I am lead to believe they veer off into espionage territory.