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Pierce, Peter Frank (1950–2018)

by Jane Sullivan

from Canberra Times

There was something ominous about the way Peter Pierce began his valedictory piece on the work of the late Peter Corris. Charles Dickens, he reminded us, died at his desk in 1870, aged 58, with his crime novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood unfinished. Robert B. Parker died at 77, Michael Dibdin died at 60 and Philip Kerr at 62, each leaving behind an interrupted series of crime novels.

Corris, who left us recently at the age of 76, wrote an astonishing 90 books, including more than 40 in the Cliff Hardy detective series. And now Pierce himself has suddenly gone, at the age of 68, and I wish there was someone with his gifts to write a similar valedictory piece about him.

Pierce had a lifelong fascination with Australian literature in all its guises and genres, and he championed it fiercely in an academic climate often not at all favourable to homegrown writing. He was Adjunct Professor in the school of journalism, Australian and Indigenous studies at Monash University at the time he died, and his previous jobs included 10 years as Professor of Australian Literature at James Cook University, which was one of only two such chairs in the country.

I met him as a prolific book reviewer, for these pages and elsewhere, and as a judge of literary competitions, and he always impressed me as a man of intellect, kindness and sharp wit. Acute judge as he was, it was a relief that he wasn't right about everything. When I was pregnant, he told me blithely that I wouldn't get a proper night's sleep for five years. Thankfully that turned out to be a misjudgement – though of course I was convinced he was right when he praised my two novels in his reviews.

He wrote several books, notably Australian Melodramas: Thomas Keneally's Fiction, which sought to rescue Keneally from the view that because he was prolific and popular, there was something not quite "literary" about him; and The Country of Lost Children: An Australian Anxiety, still very timely in its focus on our preoccupation with the child who disappears into the bush.

Perhaps his greatest scholarly contribution was his editorship of the 2009 Cambridge History of Australian Literature, which strikes me now as forward-looking in its inclusion of Indigenous and migrant literatures and representations of Asia and the Pacific.

I always used to enjoy Pierce's vigorous, carefully argued and frequently funny book reviews, even when I didn't agree with him (he once made a frank off-the-cuff comment about Christos Tsiolkas's The Slap as "All those references to dicks and bodily functions, I don't like it").

The thing was, he always knew exactly what he was talking about. In his piece on Corris for The Sydney Review of Books, he ranges over the sometimes surprising facts of Corris's life and work in a thoughtful and perceptive way you just can't get from a quick bit of Googling.

At a time when Australian crime fiction is all the go, it's difficult to imagine how hard it was for Corris to get his work recognised back in 1980, when his first Cliff Hardy novel, The Dying Trade, was published. Pierce is onto that, and he gives us a great overview of what he calls Corris's "cascade of fiction".

Peter Pierce gave us a cascade of analysis, opinion and interpretation that has done much to raise the profile of Australian writing. I like the tribute from friends Kim Beazley and Susie Annus: "A superb polymathic mind … through his social empathy able to guide us through how we have articulated our spirit."

Original publication

  • Canberra Times, 28 September 2018

Other Obituaries for Peter Frank Pierce

View the list of ADB articles written by Peter Frank Pierce

Additional Resources

Citation details

Jane Sullivan, 'Pierce, Peter Frank (1950–2018)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/pierce-peter-frank-28184/text35873, accessed 24 August 2019.

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