Book Review: Full Marks for Engel

Attention Conservation Notice: I like hard-boiled and witty. Peter Corris and Donald Westlake provide.

Peter Corris has been writing his Cliff Hardy novels for pretty much as long as I’ve been reading. Hardy is a tough-but-with-a-softish-heart, based in Sydney. The early ones mentioned that Hardy fought in Malaya, but that’s not mentioned anymore, since it would make him about 80 rather than mid 50s.
Here’s what Corris has to say about his creation –

Cliff Hardy, born and raised in working class Maroubra, ex-army, law student dropout, insurance company investigator turned Private Eye, has a love-hate relationship with his time and place. He embraces the best aspects of Australian life – the tolerance, the classlessness, the vigorous urban and rural culture – while despising the greed and the conservatism that are constantly threatening to undercut what he sees as “real Australia”.
Inevitably drawn into the ambit of the people he deplores, Hardy struggles to resolve his cases while remaining true to his own threatened values. The professional challenges spill over into his personal life where he is never on firm ground.

In “The January Zone,” written in the late 80s, Hardy is reluctantly conviced to act as a body-guard to an Australian politician with ideas about a nuclear-free Pacific. This includes what turns out to be an action-packed trip to Washington DC.

There’s good observational stuff, as ever, and the politics are relatively explicit – although no Communist, Hardy is no flag-waver for the American alliance. Does it quite cohere? No. Does that matter. Nah, not if you like wisecracks and well described violent confrontations (which is one of the key reasons you ‘d read Corris, no?)

Donald Westlake (who also wrote as Richard Stark) has a lighter and surer touch. In “The Busy Body,” an early novel (he was extremely prolific up until his death) we meet young Al Engel, who is a senior lieutenant for “the organisation” – the Mafia, (which Westlake calls “the Outfit” when he’s being serious and Stark). Engel is tasked with digging up the body of a drug mule who was inadvertantly buried with a large stash of heroin. He opens the coffin – it’s empty. He is chased by police in a scene that is pure Keystone Cops. There’s beautiful dangerous woman, hookers with hearts of gold, cynical asides about pretty much everything. Westlake is writing with tongue firmly-in-cheek, and expects the reader to go along with the farce. It is a pure delight, but then I’ve not read a dud Westlake….
There appears to have been a movie too (though Westlake’s novels were rarely successfully adapted [with the obvious exception of “Point Blank”!].

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