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Cleary, Jon Stephen (1917–2010)

by Malcolm Brown

Jon Cleary, the eldest of seven children in a battling Irish Catholic family in Erskineville, had no encouragement in his upbringing to develop a literary talent, but he had ample experience of life.

The family was so poor that in 1929 his father, Matthew, earned a six-month stint in Long Bay Jail for stealing £5 from a baker's van. The family battled on, with neighbours gathering round, and that rough-hewn humanity and breadth of experience was shown in a lifetime of writing. His writing struck a chord the world over. About 8 million of his books were sold, translated into many languages, including Finnish, Swedish and Japanese.

He never aspired to literary immortality and concluded he would never reach the status of his idol, Graham Greene, yet his success in doing the thing he loved – storytelling – made him one of Australia's great writers.

Jon Stephen Cleary was born on November 22, 1917. Obliged to leave Marist Brothers Randwick in 1932, he spent the next eight years doing ''more jobs than I can remember'', including bush work, commercial travelling, animated cartooning and passport photography.

He discovered books as a 16-year-old. In 1938, invited to write an article about being unemployed, he did not like the self-pitying tone and resolved not to write non-fiction again.

In 1940, rejected from the RAAF because of astigmatism, he went into the AIF. His sister told him that after he kissed his mother, Ida, goodbye, she took to her bed and ''cried for 24 hours''. It was not a kissy-cuddly family, Cleary said, but there was love.

He was posted as a gunner to a coastal surveillance unit in the Middle East, where two former schoolteachers introduced him to the works of Ernest Hemingway. He borrowed books from the Salvation Army, from the British library, from anywhere he could.

In 1941 he won a £50 prize from the Sydney Daily Mirror for a short story from the Middle East, and the paper then asked him to write 1000 words a week for a year for two guineas a time.

Cleary returned to Australia in 1942 and worked for a military history unit, which took him to New Guinea. He wrote a novel there but a cyclone whipped the manuscript away. In 1945 he was the joint winner of the ABC National Radio Play Contest with Safe Horizons.

After the war, with £1500 in his bank account, Cleary sailed for Britain. On the trip, he met a nurse, Joy Lucas, fell in love and married soon after.

Disappointed in his initial aim of becoming a documentary maker, he turned to writing and in 1947 published his first novel, You Can't See Round Corners, dealing with an army deserter wanted in Sydney for murder. It won second prize in The Sydney Morning Herald's novel contest, just edged out by Ruth Park's The Harp in the South.

In 1948 Cleary worked for the Australian News and Information Service, first in London, then from 1949 in New York.

In 1952 The Sundowners was published. The novel about a drifter, Paddy Carmody, who went from job to job with his family in a bullock dray, sold 3 million copies and made his name.

Cleary and his family travelled, settling in several countries, including Spain, Italy and the United States. Book after book followed. The Climate of Courage (1954) was about a group of Australian soldiers who took leave in Sydney and then returned to New Guinea to face brutal warfare.

Justin Bayard (1955) was described as an ''Australian western'' and The Green Helmet (1957) was about motor racing.

His The High Commissioner (1966) introduced police inspector Scobie Malone and was made into a feature film. You Can't See Round Corners was adapted as a television series and a film in the 1960s.

In 1968 Cleary returned to Australia to settle, eventually in Kirribilli. Having written three novels featuring Malone, he went on to write another 17. In 1972 Cleary published High Road to China, a light-hearted adventure involving a spoiled heiress, a flyer and a complicated plot. It was later adapted for film. In 1974 he published Penny's Pence, centred on an IRA conspiracy to kidnap the pope, which won him the Edgar Allan Poe award from Mystery Writers of America.

Cleary had a disciplined routine. He and Joy would travel two months of the year researching – an occupation he enjoyed immensely – sometimes going to hot spots. It was not the grenades or guerillas he feared, Cleary said. It was the prospects of meeting another writer, as happened when he ran into Morris West in Rome.

For City of Fading Light (1985), he did research in Berlin for the setting, 1936 Berlin, and introduced historical characters such as Josef Goebbels. He wrote at a leisurely 1500 words a day and, when published, he was virtually guaranteed sales of 250,000.

Cleary dealt with social issues including racism in Dragons in the Party (1987) and Pride's Harvest (1991). He wrote four books dealing with the changing face of Sydney: Dark Summer (1992), Bleak Spring (1993), Autumn Maze (1994) and Winter Chill (1995). He wrote about pre-Olympic Sydney, the setting for Five Ring Circus (1995), in which an investor was gunned down in a restaurant. In Different Turf (1996) he took on issues including feminism and homosexuality. In Dilemma (2000) he was openly critical of the Olympics in Sydney. In 2004 he published Degrees of Connection, in which Scobie Malone made his 20th and last appearance.

Cleary, who died in Sydney last week after a long illness, wrote 55 books, seven of which were made into films. Among his many awards were the 1950 Australian Literary Society Gold Medal, the 1974 Edgar Prize as regional winner in a world contest for best crime novel and, in 1995, the Ned Kelly Awards Lifelong Contribution to the Crime, Mystery and Detective Genres. His older daughter, Jane, died of cancer in 1987 and Joy succumbed to Alzheimer's. To the end he was spirited, sparkling, a superb craftsman with an indomitable spirit.

Original publication

  • Sydney Morning Herald, 28 July 2010

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Citation details

Malcolm Brown, 'Cleary, Jon Stephen (1917–2010)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/cleary-jon-stephen-16706/text28602, accessed 20 May 2019.

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