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Jon Cleary (1917-)


Australian popular novelist, a natural storyteller, whose career as a writer extended over 60 years. Jon Cleary's books have sold some 8 million copies. Often the stories are set in exotic locations all over the world or in some interesting historical scene of the 20th century, such as the Nazi Berlin of 1936. Cleary also wrote perhaps the longest running homicide detective series of Australia. Its sympathetic protagonist, Inspector Scobie Malone, was introduced in The High Commissioner (1966). Degrees of Connection, published in 2003, was Scobie's 20th appearance. Although Cleary's books can be read as efficiently plotted entertainment, he occasionally touched psychological, social, and moral dilemmas inside the frame of high adventure.

"Cathleen sighed. Though a woman, she was continually amazed at the blind faith of women. She was not a cynic, just someone who had learned from her experiences. 'Honey, men will rarely admit anything to themselves about women, except to abuse us. They're afraid of us, most of them. Even the ones who belt the hell out of us. Especially them." (from City of Fading Light, 1985)

Jon Stephen Cleary was born in Sydney, New South Wales, into a working class family as the eldest of seven children. When Clearly was only 10, his father Matthew was condemned to six months' imprisonment for stealing £5 from his baker's delivery bag, in an attempt have money to feed his family. Cleary's mother, Ida, was a fourth-generation Australian. From his parents Cleary inherited a strong sense of just and unjust and his belief in family values.

Cleary was educated at the Marist Brothers school in Randwick, New South Wales. After leaving school in 1932, at the age of fourteen, he spent the following 8 years out of work or in odd jobs, such as a commercial traveler and bush worker – "I had more jobs than I can now remember," he later said of the Depression years. Cleary's love of reading was sparked when he began to help his friend, who had a travelling library. His favorite writers included P.G. Wodehouse. Before the war Clearly became interested in the career of commercial artists, but he also wrote for amateur revues. In 1940 he joined the Australian Army and served in the Middle East and New Guinea. During these years Cleary started to write seriously, and by the war's end he had published several short stories in magazines. His radio play, Safe Horizon (1944), received a broadcasting award.

Cleary's These Small Glories (1945), a collection of short stories, was based on his experiences as a soldier in the Middle East. In 1946 Cleary married Joy Lucas, a Melbourne nurse, whom he had met on a sea voyage to England; they had two daughters. His first novel, You Can’t See Round Corners (1947), won the second prize in The Sydney Morning Herald’s novel contest. It was later made into a television serial and then into a feature film. The Graham Greene-ish story of a deserter who returns to Sydney showed Cleary's skill at describing his home city, its bars, and people living on the margin of society. Noteworthy, the book was edited by Greene himself, who worked for the publishing firm Eyre & Spottiswoode and who gave Cleary two advices: "One, never forget there are two people in a book; the writer and the reader. And the second one was he said, 'Write a thriller because it will teach you the art of narrative and it will teach you the uses of brevity.'" (In an interview by Ramona Koval, ABC Radio program, February 2006)

Cleary worked as a journalist for Government of Australia News and Information Bureau in London in 1948-49 and in New York from 1949 to 1951. His most famous book, Sundowners, appeared in 1951, and has sold since more than three million copies. The story, set in the 1920s, told of a drover, Paddy Carmody, who travels from job to job in a horse-drawn wagon with his wife and son. Paddy refuses to settle down, give up drifting in the Australian bush, and live the stable life. In 1960 Fred Zinnemann directed a first-rate film based on the book, starring Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr. It was shot on location by Jack Hildyard. The Green Helmet (1957), filmed in 1959 by Michael Forlong, was a motor racing thriller. Justin Bayard (1955), which was made into a film under the title Dust in the Sun (1958), was called an Australian Western. In The Climate of Courage (1954) Cleary returned his war experiences, and depicted a number of soldier, who enjoy a break in Sydney and then are sent to a bloody combat in New Guinea with the Japanese.

The award-winning Peter's Pence (1974) was about an IRA conspiracy to kidnap the Pope. High Road to China (1977), filmed in 1983 and starring Tom Selleck, was a lighthearted adventure tale of Eve Tozer, a spoiled heiress, and O'Malley, a flyer, on their tangled way from London to China to rescue Eve's father. City of Fading Light (1985), set in Berlin in the summer of 1936, mixed historical and fictional people. Cathleen O'Dea has come from Hollywood to Germany to star in a film – and trace her missing mother. Among other characters are Josef Goebbels, the Minister of Propaganda and a notorious womanizer, Admiral Canaris, the head of the Abwehr, and Sean Carmody from Sundowners. A subplot deals with an assassination plan – the target is no less than Adolf Hitler. The plot parallels The Bear Pit (1999), published before the Olympics in Sydney in 2000, but the target is the Premier. As usual, Cleary researched carefully for the work – in an interview he once said that ''half the pleasure of writing for me has been the research." This time his sources included William L. Shirer's acclaimed The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (1960) and contemporary newspapers and magazines – some of the news items appear on the pages of the novel.

Scobie, named after legendary jockey Scobie Beasley, was introduced in The High Commissioner, with the unforgettable opening line: "'We want you to go to London,' said the Premier, 'and arrest the High Commissioner for murder.'" Scobie Malone is an honest cop, a devout Catholic, and a family man with rigid principles. Before Jon Cleary (and the Swedish team Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö), most urban police procedurals in the 1950s and 1960s were set in London or a few major American cities. In the classic tradition of detective fiction, Cleary used the character of Scobie as his mouthpiece. During the years the author nostalgically recorded the disappearance of old values and commented on social issues, such as racism in Pride's Harvest (1991) and Dragons at the Party (1987), family problems, business, politics, changing values, feminism, homosexuality in Different Turf (1996), race relations with the Aborigines. However, Cleary underlined that "I am not interested in 'messages', but I do like to sneak in comments as long as they don't hold up the narrative." The four-book sequence – Dark Summer (1992), Bleak Spring (1993), Autumn Maze (1994), and Winter Chill (1995) – looked at the changing face of Sydney and changing family practices. Degrees of Connection, the 20th book in the series and at the same time Cleary's 54th novel, came out in 2003. After its appearance Cleary said in an interview that it will be his last crime novel: "I've run out of ideas. When I found myself making notes on a serial killer, I knew that I'd got to the bottom of the barrel because that's the cliche in crime writing today." The character of Lisa, Scobie's Dutch wife, was based on Joy Cleary; she died in 2003.

In Five Ring Circus (1998), in which an investor in Olympic Tower is gunned down in a restaurant, and Dilemma (2000), which spins together two murder cases, Cleary criticized the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. Ordinary family life was juxtaposed with Scobie's work in Autumn Maze, starting with the murder of a morgue attendant. Pride's Harvest took Scobie to the country town of Collamundra, where he faces political intrigue, racism, and corruption of the establishment. When an important Japanese industrialist becomes the murder victim, suspicion falls first on a scapegoat Aborigine. However, the reader can rely on Scobie being free from prejudice. Morning's Gone (2006) continued Cleary's examination of family life, but with a political twist: the central character, Matt Durban is a seasoned Labor politician.

Cleary lived outside Australia for extended periods and worked in films and television in the United States and Britain. Several of his books have been made into feature films. After returning to Australia, Cleary eventually settled in Kirribilli, a suburb of Sydney. Cleary's books have been translated into some ten languages, including Finnish and Swedish; one of his admirers was Hilary Clinton. Among Cleary's awards were Australian Broadcasting Commission prize for radio drama in 1944, the Australian Literary Society’s Crouch Medal for Best Australian Novel in 1950, the Edgar Allan Poe award from the Mystery Writers of America in 1974, Australian Crime Writers Association Lifetime Achievement Award in 1996, and Australian Crime Writers Association Ned Kelly award for best novel in 2004.

A diligent author with a phenomenal memory, Cleary's quota was 1500 words a day, which he produced with an old typewriter. After being mugged, he gave up his morning walks on the north side of the harbour. Jon Cleary died on 19 July, 2010. His lifelong friends included the writer Morris L. West, whom he first met in England in 1957; Cleary gave the eulogy at his funeral in 1999.

For further reading: Contemporary Popular Writers, ed. by Dave Mote (1997); St. James Guide to Crime & Mystery Writers, ed. by Jay P. Pederson (1996); World Authors 1950-1970, ed. by John Wakeman (1975) - Scobie Malone mysteries: The High Commissioner (1966); Helga's Web (1970); Ransom (1973); Dragon's at the Party (1987); Now and Then, Amen (1988); Babylon South (1989); Murder Song (1990); Pride's Harvest (1991); Dark Summer (1992); Bleak Spring (1993); Autumn Maze (1994); Winter Chill (1995); A Different Turf (1996); Endpeace (1998); Five-Ring Circus (1999); Dilemma (2000); The Bear Pit (2000); Yesterday's Shadow (2001); The Easy Sin (2002); Degrees of Connection (2004)

Selected works:

  • Safe Horizon, 1944 (radio play)
  • These Small Glories, 1946
  • You Can't See Round Corners, 1947
    - Films: TV series 1967, prod. ATN 7, teleplay Richard Lane, dir. David Cahill, starring Rowena Wallace, John Armstrong, Ken Shorter, Carmen Duncan; You Can't See 'round Corners 1969, prod. Amalgamated Television Services, dir. David Cahill, starring Ken Shorter, Rowena Wallace, John Armstrong, Carmen Duncan
  • The Long Shadow, 1949
  • You, the Jury, 1950
  • Just Let Me Be, 1950
  • The Sundowners, 1951
    Prod. Warner Bros., 1960, screenplay Isobel Lennart, dir. by Fred Zinnemann, starring Robert Mitchum, Deborah Kerr, Glynis Johns, Peter Ustinov
  • The Climate of Courage, 1954 (U.S. title: Naked in the Night, 1955)
  • Justin Bayard, 1955 (U.S. title: Dust in the Sun, 1957)
    Film: Dust in the Sun, 1958, screenplay Joy Cavill, W.P. Lipscomb, Lee Robinson, dir. Lee Robinson, starring Jill Adams, Ken Wayne and Maureen Lanagan
  • Just Let Me Be, 1957 (television play)
  • The Green Helmet, 1957
    Prod. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, British Studios, 1961, screenplay Jon Cleary, dir. by Michael Forlong, starring Bill Travers, Ed Begley, Sidney James
  • Back of Sunset, 1959
  • The Siege of Pinchgut, 1959 (screenplay with Harry Watt and Alexander Baron)
    - Prod. Ealing Studios, Associated British Picture Corporation (ABPC), 1959, dir. Harry Watt, starring Aldo Ray, Heather Sears, Neil McCallum, Victor Maddern
  • North from Thursday, 1960
  • Bus Stop series, 1961 (television play, 12 episodes)
  • The Country of Marriage, 1962
  • Forests of the Night, 1963
  • A Flight of Chariots, 1963
  • Strike Me Lucky, 1963 (play, prod. in Bromley, Kent)
  • Pillar of Salt, and Other Stories, 1963
  • The Fall of an Eagle, 1964
  • The High Commissioner, 1966 (also: Nobody Runs Forever)
    - Prod. Rank Organisation, The, Katzka-Berne Productions, American Broadcasting Company (ABC), 1968, screenplay Wilfred Greatorex, dir. Ralph Thomas, starring Rod Taylor (as Scobie Malone), Christopher Plummer, Lilli Palmer, Camilla Sparv
  • The Pulse of Danger, 1966
  • The Long Pursuit, 1967
  • Season of Doubt, 1968
  • Remember Jack Hoxie, 1969
  • Helga's Web, 1970
    - Scobie Malone, prod. Kingcroft, 1975, dir. by Terry Ohlsson, starring Jack Thompson (as Scobie Malone), Judy Morris, John Hanlon, Jacqueline Kott
  • Ask of the Andes, 1971
  • Mask of the Andes, 1971 (U.S. title The Liberators, 1971)
  • Man's Estate, 1972 (U.S. title: The Ninth Marquess, 1972)
  • Ransom, 1973
  • Peter's Pence, 1974
    - Ryöstö Vatikaanissa (suom. Renne Nikupaavola, 1977)
  • Sidecar Racers (Sidecar Boys), 1975 (screenplay)
    - Prod. Universal Pictures, dir. Earl Bellamy, starring Ben Murphy, Wendy Hughes, John Clayton, Peter Graves
  • The Safe House, 1975
    - Jäljissä kuoleman varjo (suom. Irmeli Sallamo, 1979)
  • A Sound of Lightning, 1976
  • Vortex, 1977
  • High Road to China, 1977
    Prod. City Films, Golden Harvest Company, Jadran Film, 1983, screenplay S. Lee Pogostin, Sandra Weintraub, dir. by Brian G. Hutton, starring Tom Selleck, Bess Armstrong, Jack Weston, Wilford Brimley
    - Vihreän härän jumala (suom. Matti Kannost, 1978)
  • The Beaufort Sisters, 1979
  • A Very Private War, 1980
    - Yksinäinen sota (lyhennelmä teoksessa Kirjavaliot n:o 25, suom. Eero Mänttäri, 1981)
  • The Faraway Drums, 1981
  • The Golden Sabre, 1981
  • Spearfield's Daughter, 1982
  • The Phoenix Tree, 1984
    - Feenikspuu (suom. Don Engström, 1986)
  • Spearfield's Daughter, 1986 (television play)
    - TV mini-series, prod. 20th Century Fox Television, Channel 7 Australia, dir. Gilbert M. Shilton, starring Christopher Plummer, Nancy Marchand and Kim Braden
  • The City of Fading Light, 1985
  • Dragon's at the Party, 1987
  • Now and Then, Amen, 1988
  • Babylon South, 1989
  • Murder Song, 1990
  • Pride's Harvest, 1991
  • Dark Summer, 1992
  • Bleak Spring, 1993
  • Autumn Maze, 1994
  • Winter Chill, 1995
  • A Different Turf, 1996
  • Endpeace, 1998
  • Five-Ring Circus, 1999
  • Dilemma, 2000
  • The Bear Pit, 2000
  • Yesterday's Shadow, 2001
  • The Easy Sin, 2002
  • Degrees of Connection, 2003
  • Miss Ambar Regrets, 2004
  • Morning's Gone, 2006
  • Four-Cornered Circle, 2007

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