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Jon Cleary: Character builder

AT lunch in a city trendoid restaurant three weeks before, he'd been erudite and reminiscent, an avuncular literary godfather sharing publishing gossip over the antipasto, discussing crime writers and the internet with the main course, delivering coffee-sipping anecdotes on watching James Jones and Hemingway face off in young lion-old lion posturing in their New York editor's office, on Truman Capote and Gore Vidal trading verbal savageries in a nightclub. And of his long friendship with Morris West, and the similarities of faith, hope and lack of critical charity they have both experienced.

At our next meeting, Jon Cleary is more subdued - still the polite essence of mine host but somewhat distracted and vulnerable. He's just back from his daily visit and lunch with his wife, Joy, who is 10 minutes' walk away in a hostel for Alzheimer's sufferers. The prognosis is not promising, and as he pushes piles of books aside to place a silver tray of coffee pot and biscuits on the ornately-molded table, he's relieved to talk about it. It's a heavy burden to carry alone, especially when you find yourself rattling around in the emptiness of a home lovingly furnished for two.

They've been married since 1946 - ''sharing a 52-year love affair,'' as Joy had told him that morning - were so a fortnight after they met on the last week of the long sea voyage to England. She had travelled to "escape Melbourne after the war", he to make documentary films, paying his 132 pound fare on the SS Rangatata from a 1000 pound second prize in a national fiction competition where his You Can't See Round Corners was photofinished out by Ruth Park's Harp in the South. The ship's company was an exodus of Australian artists and conmen, with the likes of dancer Elaine Fifield and actors Leo Mckern, Joy Nichols and Dick Bentley on board; he was amazed - still is - that ''such a beautiful woman ... had picked me''.

Making docos was quickly canned as a career when he realised that public taste had moved from evocative fact to bodice ripper escapism. It was back to Plan B, writing. As it evolved, it was a winning moe - few have done as much, as successfully, for so long.

Today sees the launch of the annual Cleary, Five Ring Circus, the latest in his growing opus of Scobie Malone adventures. Named after legendary jockey Scobie Beasley, the eponymous Inspector Malone this time battles a pre-Olympics Chinese puzzle of international corruption, crime cartels, sinister hitmen, Oriental inscrutability and dirty deals. All within a Sydney that is as much a personality in the novels as any of his eclectic characters.

As expected, it is a well-crafted, meticulously-researched work. After all, you don't sell more than 8 million books in international markets, or have so many translated to the silver screen (think The Sundowners, The High Commissioner, High Road to China and more) or pick up honours like the ASAL gold medal for literary excellence or an Edgar Allan Poe award from the Mystery Writers of America without doing it right.

And if the author is wont to make comments like "I realised at 40 I did not have the intellectual depth to be the writer I would like to be, so I determined to be as good a craftsman as I might be,'' that's more to do with an Erskinville-bred 'no big tickets on yourself' attitude and natural modesty. He still shakes his head in bemusement at where writing has taken him - around the world many times from Asian jungles to African veldts to Berlin bunkers; and the decades of living in America and Europe with cultural movers and shakers as confidants; and into Hollywood; and into a lifestyle eons removed from the poverty of his youth ... it's a plotline many editors would consider too far-fetched for a novel, yet it is the very source that has fed his Scheherazadean eloquence.

THE numbers are starting to stack up, the diminutive Cleary mentions as we stroll on to his Kirribilli duplex balcony to oversee its Sydney panorama of Bridge, Opera House and city skyline. He's 81 this year, has been writing for 60 years and just a couple of days earlier had accidentally begun his 50th book, ''more as a distraction from Joy's situation than anything else". It's earmarked for publication in 2000, and there's a certain symbolic completeness, he feels, to the pairing of 50th book and new millennium. His editors are on a strict watching brief for cliches and the dreaded ''one book too many". And, frankly, he hasn't needed to write for the financial return for many years now, even though every book is still guaranteed more than 125,000 sales in its various markets.

"I've always tried never to get carried away with whatever's happened in my life," he tells me as we hunker back down around the table. "I gained a justifiable reputation for being tight with money, the short arms-deep pocket syndrome." He's more relaxed about it now, he says, ''although I still think twice about every purchase. I have to laugh at myself at times.'' But early lessons are strongest, and being raised in an inner-city working class family as the eldest of seven during the Depression was educational: ''When I was 11, Dad was sentenced to six months in Long Bay for stealing 5 pounds from his baker's delivery bag because we were in debt up to our eyebrows ... a month later, a Friday night at 6 o'clock, the time payment people came to our place, which was above a lock-up butcher's shop, and repossessed everything except my mother's double bed. I remember sitting on the steps with Mum, who was weeping bitterly, and she said to me, 'Don't ever owe anything to anybody' ... that sort of thing sticks with you."

As does the belief instilled in the Marist schools. He still goes to mass every Sunday, although the ''misogynist hierarchy of the church is irrelevant'' to his faith now: ''If I haven't come to an understanding with God at my age, there's something wrong with one of us. And I know it's not me.'' But his faith has sustained him through personal trials, including the heart problems he experienced in his 60s and a daughter's death from cancer, and it's doing so now.

Conversationally, the voice and opinions are firm, the yarns delivered with a flourish. But there are significant pauses, not so much a losing track as a comfortable accommodation with sifting thoughts and the weighing up of options. He left school before his 15th birthday 'because we needed the money', and in the 8 years before he joined the AIF in 1940 for service in the Middle East and Papua New Guinea, spent half that time out of work ... ''I lived in Coogee then and twice a week I'd walk over to Randwick council and go out to clean up footpaths. You had to be there to draw the dole ... I'm starting to sound like John Howard here but the family was the heart of society then ... the night after we were repossessed, for instance, mum and dad's friends turned up with chairs, an old table, cakes, sandwiches and so on - they were all battlers but they helped out.'' And he's never forgotten it, or the values it represented.

At the experience end of his career, Cleary entered Chandler territory, writing evocative crime novels that major in atmosphere and place and minor in surprising subtleties of social comment and a developing cast of real, flawed people. ''When I settled back here in the 70s, I wondered how if I were to write about Australia would I keep my overseas readers. I'd written three Malone tales but was resisting publishers' urging to write more because I didn't want to get trapped by it. Then I realised I could use him by hanging it on crime, which immediately intrigued the international market, and write about what it was like living in Sydney in the late 80s and through the 90s.

'I went back to look at Chandler, Hammett, Ross McDonald, Carl Hiassen in his early works and before them Horace McCoy and James M. Cain as models. I'm not interested in mystery at all - I am a natural storyteller but the characters are the most important element - they bring it alive, add truth, solve plot problems.''

There's also a lot of Jon Cleary in Scobie Malone, I suggest, the parsimonious Irish-Catholic inner city-raised honest cop predisposed towards the battler, a man forced to combat his prejudices in coming to terms with multiculturalism, feminism, homosexuality ... 'There is, there is. I only started to put myself into my books when I started to write about him - it sounds like I'm patting myself on the back but they reckon I've got a dry sense of humour, and that very rarely showed in the early books because I was loath to be there.

''I get annoyed," he says with sudden vehemence, "when people dismiss me as a thriller writer - I think to myself well the buggers haven't read half of me because if they look at my books they would find half are not thrillers. Besides, I dislike the term - to me a thriller is something that's all story, usually written with cardboard characters and often to a formula."

He's always researched avidly - ''Half the pleasure of writing for me has been the research ... I might use only 10 per cent of what I get but the other 90 per cent gives me a certain reassurance'' - and with Malone, he was careful to surround him with characters that challenged his comfort levels. ''I gave him Lisa, a wife from a different class and culture altogether who's always prepared to pull the rug from under him; his kids, based on my grandchildren, are old enough to challenge his tenets with their own points of view; his father Con is a bit like my father was, with those old solid prejudices and values, and Brigid is my mother.

''I wrote a piece yesterday when Malone tries to remember when his mother last kissed him and he thinks it was when he was 8 years old. Love is never mentioned in the Malone family but everyone knows it is there ... well, my mother and father never hugged us or kissed us, but my sister wrote to me after I went off to war, having said goodbye to my mother at the front door, that mum went to bed and cried for 24 hours. I try to put in that sort of feeling to balance Malone.''

Cleary sees his DI as a grab-bag of personal prejudices who has, through the cases he has to deal with and the issues and people he is exposed to, had to ameliorate his values.

He's become a more rounded person book by book, ''partly due to me gaining more assurance in what I can say without preaching. Age doesn't make you sage, but it does help you relax in taking risks. And in recognising that you are never too old to adjust."

Five Ring Circus by Jon Cleary is published by HarperCollins; 248pp, rrp $29.95.

This article was first published in The Weekend Australian

Copyright Murray Waldren 1998

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