Jon Cleary has written that the three things he most despises are hypocrisy, bigotry, and jingoism; his sympathies and his antipathies are apparent in his fiction. The reader senses his moral outrage at the unjust treatment of homeless Jews, as portrayed in The Safe House (1975). Justin Bayard (1955) contains an angry denunciation of absentee landlords in the Australian outback. The Liberators (1971) is, in part, a sympathetic study of the plight of the Bolivian Indians, who have long been exploited by the economic, political, and ecclesiastical power structure; in this novel, a young American priest and a United Nations agronomist attempt to help the Indians gain their rights.
Rejecting the label of didactic writer, Cleary admits that he allows himself to express his opinions in his novels from time to time, when to do so will not retard the pace of the narrative. The Liberators, considered by many to be one of Cleary’s finest novels, succeeds in developing a serious theme without being preachy, while its sociological aspect melds naturally with the exciting and suspenseful plot.
Cleary set out to be a great writer, and he has written a number of serious novels. One of these, The Sundowners (1952), has become a minor classic and is by far Cleary’s best-known work. It sold more than one million copies and has become assigned reading in many high school and college courses. In 1960, it was successfully adapted as a film (for which Cleary himself wrote the screenplay), featuring Robert Mitchum, Deborah Kerr, and Peter Ustinov. The Sundowners recounts a year in the life of Paddy Carmody and his family. Paddy is an itinerant Australian ranch worker, appealing but irresponsible. It is, in part, an initiation novel—Paddy’s son, Sean, attains manhood in the Australian wilderness of the 1920’s. The novel is warmly nostalgic yet unsentimental in tone.
The Move to Popular Fiction
Despite the financial and critical success of The Sundowners, Cleary had decided by the age of thirty-five that he lacked the mental equipment to achieve greatness. He was aware, however, that he had a fine sense of narrative, an ability to convey atmosphere, and a gift for writing dialogue. He therefore made the conscious decision to give up his dream of writing the great novel and to use his gifts instead to produce the very best popular novels of which he was capable. For several decades, he has been eminently successful in that effort. As a matter of fact, Cleary’s talent is so impressive that on occasion critics, in the course of praising his work, have expressed the wish that he would set for himself loftier literary goals. They consider him capable of attaining them. Cleary attempted a large-scale social novel in the manner of John P. Marquand, whom he admires. He worked for more than a year on a long novel dealing with political life in Sydney between 1930 and 1955, but his publisher rejected the manuscript.
Cleary’s crime fiction is so varied that it is not easy to classify. Many of his novels hug the generic line between the thriller and the adventure story. Even The Sundowners, which is not considered an adventure story, contains quite a bit of adventure. Although Cleary denies that his novels contain messages, they usually have serious and well-developed themes. He enjoys exploring character as it is revealed through conflict in remote and often-forbidding regions of the globe. In The Pulse of Danger (1966), he recounts a thrilling chase over the Himalayas. The Liberators is set in an isolated Bolivian village, high in the Andes. Cleary’s experience as a mountain climber helped him make this story credible.
A thumbnail summary of several other novels will attest the variety of Cleary’s subject matter. In Back of Sunset (1959), a young Australian doctor gives up his lucrative practice in Sydney and joins a flying service that delivers medical care to isolated regions. The Green Helmet (1957) is a...
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