Empty Beaches: In Search of Australia’s Fictional Private Eyes




SEPTEMBER 12 marked the 30th anniversary of the release of a little-known Australian crime movie, The Empty Beach. The film fared poorly upon release and is still unavailable on DVD — you’d have to track down a rare second-hand VHS edition to view it. Nonetheless, the film is something of an obsession of mine because The Empty Beach and its source material, the third book in what has become a long-running series by Sydney writer Peter Corris, feature something largely absent from Australian crime fiction and film: the bone fide, card-carrying, full-time private investigator for hire.

The PI enjoyed a brief heyday as a staple of Australia’s post-war pulp fiction industry. The industry was kick-started by a 1938 Australian government decision to levy an import tax on foreign printed matter, the result of an unlikely alliance between local publishers worried about competing against cheap material from overseas publishers, and conservatives concerned about the negative moral influence of lowbrow “foreign” publications. Local pulp publishers sprang up to fill the void, and their output included hard-boiled and not so hard-boiled private investigators. Carter Brown, the alias of Englishman Alan Yates, who migrated to Australia in 1948, wrote over 300 books, many of them featuring a PI character. Although largely forgotten today, his work was syndicated globally in the 1960s and ’70s and sold in the tens of millions. In the United States, they were published by Signet, often featuring covers by the notable pulp illustrator, Robert McGinnis. Originating as a popular radio program, the character PI Larry Kent inspired a series of novels by Don Haring, an American who lived in Queensland, which were still being published under Kent’s by-line as far afield as Scandinavia in the 1990s. Two women, Audrey Armitage and Muriel Watkins, also wrote over 20 novels featuring a PI known as Johnny Buchanan under the pseudonym of K. T. McCall. 

These books were quickly written, with generic plots that usually included femme fatales, action in seedy bars, and a large dose of cultural cringe. Most were set in big US cities like Chicago and New York, locations thought of as more exciting and exotic than anything Australia could offer. The full-time private investigator also occasionally popped up in more literary guises. Among the works of Melbourne-born novelist Charles Shaw was a series of four books, written in the 1950s under the pseudonym Bant Singer, featuring private investigator Dennis Delaney, “a two-fisted, fast-living Australian.” The books were a success, leading to comparisons to the late British writer, Peter Cheyney. 

Pulp publishing began to wane in the first half of the 1970s. As far as Australia was concerned, with it went the fortunes of the fictional gumshoe. Local crime fiction generally was in a bad state throughout the decade. Few titles appeared and authors found it tough to get published. That began to change in 1980, with the appearance of the first Cliff Hardy book, The Dying Trade. Interestingly, the same year another doyenne of the local crime fiction scene, Gabrielle Lord, published her first novel, Fortress.

Hardy is an ex-insurance claims investigator and army veteran, who saw service during the so-called “Malaya Emergency” in the 1950s when Australian troops were brought in to help the British control that country’s growing communist insurgency. In his earlier outings — the 40th installment in the series came out earlier this year, and Corris has allowed Hardy to age in real time — he liked a drink (cask red was his tipple of choice), rolled his own cigarettes, and drove around Sydney in an old Ford Falcon always in need of repair. As is de rigueur for the fictional PI, his private life was a mess, he constantly struggled to keep ahead financially, and he experienced an uneasy relationship with the local police, who were suspicious of his activities and the chaos he often preceded, but also had use of him and information he could provide.

Corris was working as literary editor of the now defunct National Times when he had the idea of doing an Australian version of the detective novels of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. While paying tribute to these influences, The Dying Trade, narrated in the first person by Hardy, is infused with a very Australian, egalitarian, almost larrikin point of view. Sydney is a key character and its geographical and political map is vividly portrayed and overlaid with a uniquely local sense of class that pre-dates the wave of economic deregulation introduced in the 1980s. Australia elected a Labor government nationally in 1983, the same year The Empty Beach first appeared in print. Labor, Hardy’s stated choice at the ballot box, opened up the banking system to foreign competition, floated the Australian dollar, and reduced tariffs. It would take a while, but these controversial reforms fundamentally transformed the country.

Hardy lived and had an office in Glebe, a suburb in Sydney’s inner west, now gentrified but once “a mixture of derros and crazies, old blokes in boarding houses,” as Corris put it in a 2013 interview with the online magazine Crime Factory. Hardy’s work not only pushed him up against Sydney’s elite, but its dregs: the junkies, pimps, thieves, standover men, and con artists. Hardy is keenly aware that the misdeeds of the rich and powerful are usually far greater than anything the underclass can dish up, as well as harder to detect and prosecute.

In The Dying Trade, Hardy is hired by a property developer to discover who is behind harassing phone threats to the man’s sister. As is so often the case in a good PI story, the apparent simplicity of the case is in inverse proportion to what is really going on. No sooner has Hardy started to probe for answers than it becomes clear the developer’s family harbors very dark secrets. 

Book two, White Meat (1981), and another missing person’s case, is partly set among the city’s indigenous Aboriginal community. The Marvelous Boy (1982) sees Hardy employed by a rich widow to find her missing grandson. The Empty Beach opens with Hardy, pushing 40 and trying to give up cigarettes, arriving for a meeting with Marion Singer, the widow of a nouveau riche publicity-shy businessman, John Singer. Hardy has done some research into Singer, missing for two years. On the public record at least, the entrepreneur made his money from pinball machines. Off the record, however, there are suggestions his wealth was derived from less savory activities. John Singer’s body has never been found, and the wife wants Hardy to look into rumors that he may still be alive. Despite misgivings about the case and Marion’s obvious ambivalence about her husband, Hardy needs money and accepts the job.

He drives the widow to her home in Sydney’s affluent eastern suburbs, so she can get Hardy a photograph of her late husband:

She directed me north up the hill and around a couple of turns that brought me out in a street I didn’t know. It ran along the side of a cliff that dropped away down to water, rocks and a little sand. There were four apartment blocks. Chez Singer was in a ten-storey block that boasted the name The Reefs. None of the residents would be victims of life’s shipwrecks. The building soared up and was placed to give a maximum view of the water; the balconies were long and deep and the acres of glass were tinted. I guessed that a title for one of the apartments would change hands for around a quarter of a million.

Corris contrasts this with Hardy’s observations of the beachside suburb of Bondi, where John Singer was last seen alive. Now another of Sydney’s rapidly gentrifying suburbs, in the early 1980s Bondi was more working class and diverse, “crowded with big blocks of flats, small ones, and divided houses in a pattern forced by the passionate desire of Australians to live by the sea.” By night, when much of the novel’s action takes place, the “neon glow compensates for the immense dark blankness of the sea. The haphazard levels of the buildings take on a foreign, exotic look and the penthouse dwellers sip their drinks high above the streets like fat, privileged eagles in their eyries.”

His first night prowling Bondi for leads, Hardy is nearly mugged by a group of junkies. Passing freelance journalist, Bruce Henneberry, who, along with his ambitious young assistant, Ann Winter, is researching Bondi’s growing drug trade, saves him. A possible link between the journalist’s work and Hardy’s case becomes apparent when Henneberry is murdered and his flat ransacked, obviously for his research material. The killing forces Hardy and Ann into an uneasy alliance. Their next clue, an elderly tramp who on occasion had sold information to Henneberry and may have something on Singer’s disappearance, is killed by a shotgun blast from an unknown assailant.

It slowly becomes apparent what is really behind Marion Singer’s desire to confirm her husband’s death: drug money and the license for a casino operation, now in Marion Singer’s name, which her late husband’s criminal business associates want for themselves. By the time Hardy realizes he has been hired to flush out the wife’s opponents into the arms of the police, he has already taken and administered several beatings, his life has been threatened, and the police are breathing down his neck for what they suspect may be his role in Henneberry’s death, all for A$120 a day plus expenses.

The film version of The Empty Beach came nowhere near recuperating its A$1.8 million budget. One quip that did the rounds at the time was that it should have been called “the empty cinema.” It has the whiff of being one of the many Australian films made in the 1970s and ’80s to take advantage of generous tax incentives to encourage the private sector to fund local film and television content.

The film closely follows the book with a few exceptions. These include the insertion of a final shootout between the criminals and police in front of Bondi’s iconic beach pavilion, an obvious attempt to up the action quota, and the suggestion at the very end that John Singer is alive and in Bangkok. Like the source novel, the movie contains strands that don’t always seem to relate to the central plot, but which give it a dark texture. Particularly unsettling are lengthy scenes where Hardy and Ann venture into a dilapidated boarding house in which old people are held captive in appalling conditions while the owners collect their social welfare payments. In other words, it was not your average mainstream cinema drawcard.

None of this means it is a bad film. But its dark themes, the fact that so much of the plot is left unexplained and the pessimistic ending in which justice is not served, all make it ahead of its time in terms of Australian cinema. Despite what some critics saw as its made-for-television feel, The Empty Beach looks great. This is no doubt due to the work of cinematographer, John Seale, who would go on to have a distinguished career in Hollywood films, most recently, Mad Max: Fury Road (2015). Seale captures the laid back feel of Sydney beach side life in the early 1980s, the surf, the brilliance of the sunlight and clear blue sky at the height of summer, contrasted with the murky, sleazy feel of Bondi at night.

The other strength is Bryan Brown as Hardy, fresh from roles in successful local films like Breaker Morant (1980) and the 1985 television series, A Town Like Alice, based on the book by Nevil Shute. Brown is perfectly cast, by turns casual unpretentious everyman mixed with flashes of more robust Australian masculinity, and there is just enough of a hint of attraction between he and Ann (Anna Maria Monticelli) to keep things interesting.

The Empty Beach is also a fascinating tour through early-1980s Sydney. It depicts a town on the cusp of change: more working class, less internationalized, where the cops and criminals drink in the same pubs, a city wide open to illegal activities, fast money, and suspect deals. Just how wide open would become apparent a decade later, when the Wood Commission into the New South Wales Police Force uncovered widespread corruption, including police working with criminals to “greenlight” crimes without fear of police reprisal (and sometimes with their active cooperation).

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It took Corris four years to find a publisher for The Dying Trade. “They said that Australian crime readers wanted books about New York, Los Angeles or London,” Corris told Crime Factory.

They weren’t interested in local crime apart from, as you say, the pulp stuff, Carter Brown, Larry Kent, which was really sort of faux-American. It really wasn’t set anywhere. But those publishers were wrong. There are letters in the Mitchell Library [one of the reference collections in the State Library of New South Wales] from some of those publishers saying, this will never work, Peter should do something else. Fuck ‘em.

While Australian crime fiction is in a much better position than it was then, private investigators remain rare. There is Kerry Greenwood’s female PI, Phryne Fisher, and Peter Temple’s Jack Irish, both of which have been adapted for television, to cite two better known examples. And, of course, Hardy is still going. There are others, but only a trickle compared to the flood of police procedurals, domestic thrillers, and what I have called “accidental PIs” — characters that do their detecting accidently or on the side from their day job — that dominate the Australian crime fiction market. 

In his book Pulp Culture and the Cold War (1995), Woody Haut tied the fortunes of the PI as a literary and cultural figure in the United States to the country’s shifting politics. In the 1930s, when Hammett was at his peak and Chandler was getting established, official abuses of power following the Great Depression were writ large in the public’s mind, and the PI was encouraged to have an adversarial relationship with state power and the rich. 

Cold War paranoia and communist witch-hunts of the 1950s made the public interrogation of the powerful something to be avoided, for fear of being branded a subversive. Along with their saturation of the literary marketplace, the PI as a mainstay of crime fiction declined correspondingly into the early 1960s. One exception to this trend was Ross MacDonald’s Lew Archer. But Haut notes that while displaying a liberal humanism in his dealings with people, Archer never strayed into political issues like the Vietnam War, which is hardly touched on in MacDonald’s books.

The situation again changed in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The domestic blowback from Vietnam and Watergate gave the PI a new lease on life. The economic downturn and economic deregulation of the 1980s saw further innovations to the character by writers such as James Lee Burke and Sue Grafton, George Pelecanos, Walter Mosley, and Sara Paretsky, to mention a few.

Analyzed in this way, Australian crime fiction has a completely different social, political, and economic context, which perhaps explains the lack of literary traction exercised by the private investigator. Economic protectionism and cultural paternalism, not oppositional politics, was behind the boom of fictional PIs in the 1950s. And since then, tough libel laws, weak free speech protections, and excessive government secrecy have all undermined the legitimacy of fictional Australian PIs compared to their US counterparts.

The vast majority of Australian crime writers can’t afford to give up their day jobs. Maybe it’s hardly surprising that their fictional characters don’t either.

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Andrew Nette is a writer and reviewer based in Melbourne, Australia. His online home is www.pulpcurry.com.


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