Jon Cleary

Jon Stephen Cleary (22 November 1917  19 July 2010[1][2]) was an Australian writer and novelist. He wrote numerous books, including The Sundowners (1951), a portrait of a rural family in the 1920s as they move from one job to the next, and The High Commissioner (1966), the first of a long series of popular detective fiction works featuring Sydney Police Inspector Scobie Malone. A number of Cleary's works have been the subject of film and television adaptations.

Jon Cleary
BornJon Stephen Cleary
(1917-11-22)22 November 1917
Erskineville, New South Wales, Australia
Died19 July 2010(2010-07-19) (aged 92)
New South Wales, Australia
GenreDrama, crime fiction
Notable worksThe Sundowners, Scobie Malone series
Years active1942–2007
SpouseJoy Cleary
(m. 1946–2003; her death)


Early life

Cleary was born in Erskineville, Sydney and educated at Marist Brothers College, Randwick. When he was ten his father spent six months in Long Bay Gaol for stealing five pounds. Debt collectors took everything in the Cleary household "except a piano and my mother's double bed", said Cleary. "I remember sitting on the steps with Mum, who was weeping bitterly, and she said, 'Don't ever owe anything to anybody.' That sticks with you, and it's why I gained a justifiable reputation for being tight with money."[3] However he added that "the night after we were repossessed, our friends turned up with chairs, an old table, cakes, sandwiches – they were all battlers but they helped out."[3]

Cleary left school in 1932, aged 14, to help his family financially. He spent the following eight years doing a variety of jobs, notably as a commercial artist for Austral Toon under Eric Porter.[4] He wrote his first story in 1938 at the request of Joe Morley, a journalist friend of Cleary's father. It was a piece about being unemployed which Cleary did not finish because he thought it was self-pitying but he found he did enjoy the process of writing.[5]

War Service

Cleary enlisted in the Australian army on 27 May 1940 and served in the Middle East before being transferred to the Military History Unit. He served for a time in New Guinea, where his clerk was Lee Robinson, and was discharged on 10 October 1945 with the rank of lieutenant.[6]

Writing career

Cleary began writing regularly in the army, selling his first story in 1940. The following year he won £50 prize writing a story for the Daily Mirror. It was killed by the censor but the newspaper hired Cleary to write a weekly story. He began also to write for The Australian Journal, whose editor sent four of Cleary's short stories to American agent Paul Reynolds, who began selling them to American magazines such as Cosmopolitan and The Saturday Evening Post.[5][7] and in 1945 won equal first prize in a competition for the ABC for his radio play Safe Horizon.[8] In 1946 a collection of his short stories was published called These Small Glories.

You Can't See 'Round Corners

Cleary's first novel was the 1947 work, You Can't See 'Round Corners, about the life of an army deserter wanted for the sensational murder of his girlfriend in wartime Sydney. Cleary started writing this in the army and finished it on board a ship en route to London where he had hoped to find work as a screenwriter.[4] Instead he worked as a journalist for the Australia News and Information Bureau from 1948–50, a job he continued in New York from 1950–51.[9]

He continued writing short stories and novels. His second novel, The Long Shadow (1949) was a thriller, a genre he tackled at the suggestion of his editor Graham Greene. Just Let Me Be (1950) was set in Coogee, and was later filmed for British TV.

The Sundowners

While in New York Cleary wrote his fourth published novel, The Sundowners, based on stories of his father. It was published in 1952 and sold three million copies, enabling Cleary to write full-time.

Cleary lived in Italy for a year then returned home to Australia in 1953 after seven years away.[10] His fifth novel, The Climate of Courage (1954), was based on his war experiences and sold well in Australia and Britain. He visited the Kimberley region in 1954, and the result was Justin Bayard (1955) (later filmed as Dust in the Sun (1958)).

International writer

Cleary then went back to live in London. His novels became increasingly set in countries other than Australia, with Cleary travelling extensively for the purposes of research.

"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", Cleary said later on.[11]

He had written a book about Australian politics, The Mayor's Nest, but his English publisher was worried it would not appeal to an international audience, and suggested a book on motor racing. Cleary had lived in Italy and become familiar with the motor races there. He wrote The Green Helmet in Spain in twenty days, and it became a best seller on its publication in 1957. Cleary also wrote the script for the 1961 film version.[4]

He contributed to the script for The Siege of Pinchgut (1959) and helped rewrite the script to The Sundowners (1960) but his focus remained on novels: Back of Sunset (1959) was about the Australian Flying Doctors service; Strike Me Lucky (1959) was credited solely to his wife Joy but had been reworked by Cleary; North from Thursday (1960) was set in New Guinea; The Country of Marriage (1962) was set in England; Forests of the Night (1963) was set in Burma; A Flight of Chariots (1963) was about astronauts; The Fall of an Eagle (1965) was set in Anatolia; The Pulse of Danger (1966) was set in Bhutan.

He had time for script work, contributing to the screenplay for Damon and Pythias (1962) and writing an un-used draft for The Diamond Smugglers.

Scobie Malone

While in London, Cleary got the idea for a book about an Australian detective who has to arrest the Australian High Commissioner. The High Commissioner (1966) introduced the world to detective Scobie Malone although initially it was meant to be a stand-alone book. The novel sold well and was turned into a film Nobody Runs Forever (1968).

Cleary followed it with The Long Pursuit (1967), set during World War II; Season of Doubt (1968), set in Beirut; Remember Jack Hoxie (1969), set in the world of pop music.

Return to Australia

In the 1970s, Cleary returned to Sydney to live permanently, buying a block of land at Kirribilli opposite the Sydney Opera House, next to businessman Eric McClintock. Cleary built a house on this block and it became his home for the rest of his life. During the 1970s and 1980s Cleary continued to travel two months of the year to research his novels.

He wanted to write about the Opera House so Scobie Malone returned for Helga's Web (1970), which was later filmed (Cleary wrote a script which was not used). Mask of the Andes (1971) was set in Bolivia and Man's Estate (1972) among the British upper class.

Cleary returned to Scobie Malone for Ransom (1973), set in New York, but then stopped writing about the detective as he did not wish to be trapped as a writer. He did Peter's Pence (1974) a thriller; The Safe House (1975), about World War II; A Sound of Lightning (1976), set in Montana. He also wrote the screenplay for Sidecar Racers (1975).

Cleary had a big-selling success with High Road to China (1977), an adventure story later filmed in 1982. Vortex (1978) was about tornados; The Beaufort Sisters (1979), about sisters from Kansas; A Very Private War (1980) was about coastwatchers in World War II; The Faraway Drums (1981) was about a plot to assassinate King George V; The Golden Sabre (1982) was set during the 1917 Russian Revolution; Spearfield's Daughter (1983) was later filmed as a mini series; The Phoenix Tree (1984) was set in Japan during World War II; The City of Fading Light (1985) was set in 1939 Berlin.

Return of Scobie Malone

After Cleary's daughter's death from breast cancer in 1987, and his wife's subsequent ill health he travelled less.[5] Writing the Scobie Malone series of novels enabled him to tell Australian stories which appealed to an international audience, and he remained popular with readers throughout his career. Malone returned in Dragons at the Party (1987), about the Australian Bicentennial, then was in 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), Endpeace (1996), A Different Turf (1997), Five Ring Circus (1998), Dilemma (1999), Bear Pit (2000), Yesterday's Shadow (2001), The Easy Sin (2002) and Degrees of Connection (2004). He then wound up the series, feeling he was getting stale.

Final novels

He published three more novels, all set in Australia: Miss Ambar Regrets (2004), Morning's Gone (2006) and Four-Cornered Circle (2007), then retired.

Personal life

Cleary met his wife Joy on his boat trip to England in 1946 and married her five days after they landed. They had two daughters, Catherine and Jane,[12] the latter of whom died of breast cancer at age 37, predeceasing both of her parents. Joy Cleary developed Alzheimer's disease and went to live in a nursing home prior to her death in 2003.[13]"I was very, very lucky", said Cleary of his marriage. "We were in love from the day we met to the day we – sorry, I mean she – died."[14]

Cleary was good friends with fellow writers Morris West and Alexander Baron. He was a regular churchgoer, attending Mass every Sunday. For the last three years of his life, he was in ill-health, attended by a full-time carer, and in and out of hospital with heart problems.[3] He died on 19 July 2010, aged 92. The eulogy at his funeral was delivered by his friend and neighbour Sir Eric McClintock.[15]


During his lifetime, Cleary was one of the most popular Australian authors of all time. According to Murray Waldren, "his own assessment was that he lacked a poetic eye but had an eye for colour and composition and was strong on narrative and dialogue. And he took pride in the research underpinning his works."[3]

Cleary once stated that the book which had most influenced him was The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene. "He caught perfectly the almost heroism of a man who would have been shocked to hear that he was an hero ... I've always said that Greene could say more in one phrase than most writers in a chapter."[16]



Scobie Malone novels

Other novels

Short stories

  • The Way Out (1942)[19]
  • Remember? (1943)[20]
  • A Long Time Dying (1943)[21]
  • Clouds in the Sun (1943)[22]
  • Idyll in Havoc (1943)[23]
  • Safe Horizon (1943)[24]
  • Hullo, Joe (1944)[25]
  • I'd Like to Be There at the Finish (1944)[26]
  • Who Pays? (1944)[27]
  • Death Comes Slowly (1944)[28]
  • Title Bout (1945)[29]
  • Brandy Martin and My Old Man (1945)[30]
  • My Heart is Dead and Gone[31]
  • Some Day I May Come Home Again (1945)[32]
  • These Small Glories (1946) – a collection of his short stories
  • Late Date (1946)[33]
  • The Stranger (1946)[34]
  • See You on the Bus (1946)[35]
  • Sundowner on the Skylin (1946)[36]
  • A Time Together[37]
  • Pillar of Salt (1951)[38]
  • The Outsider (1951)[39]
  • No Taste for Trouble (1954)[40]
  • Man from Carolina (1958)
  • Friendly Enemies (1961)[41]
  • Pillar of Salt and other Stories (1963) – collection



  • Just Let Me Be (1957) – Cleary did the adaptation of his novel
  • Bus Stop (1961) – two episodes
  • You Can't See 'Round Corners (1967), starring Ken Shorter, John Armstrong, Rowena Wallace and Carmen Duncan – based on his novel only
  • Spearfield's Daughter (1986) (mini series), starring Christopher Plummer, Nancy Marchand, Kim Braden and Steve Railsback – based on his novel

Radio Plays

  • Debut (1943)
  • Safe Horizon (1944)


Unpublished novels

  • story of an AIF soldier who goes overseas (1947)[45]
  • the story of a father and son in Sydney 1927–47 with the background of the Sydney Harbour Bridge (circa 1947)[45]
  • The Mayor's Nest (1956) – about Australian politics
  • The Vacant Mine (1979) – uncompleted novel


  1. Brown, Malcolm (28 July 2010). "Storytelling success made him one of Australia's great writers". Brisbane Times.
  2. "Vale to Jon Cleary". The Reading Room. 27 July 2010.
  3. Waldren, Murray (22 July 2010). "Writer crafted novels for seven decades". The Australian.
  4. "Jon Cleary Interviewed by Stephen Vagg: Oral History". National Film and Sound Archive. Archived from the original on 30 November 2012.
  5. Susan Geason, "Jon Cleary: A Fortunate Life", The Sydney Morning Herald, 6 December 1992, p. 111
  6. "World War 2 Nominal Roll for Jon Cleary".
  7. "CLEARY HEARD NEWS IN LONDON". Sydney Morning Herald. 28 December 1946. p. 7. Retrieved 27 February 2012 via National Library of Australia.
  8. "Divided Award In ABC Competition". The Mercury. Hobart, Tasmania. 31 January 1945. p. 7. Retrieved 27 February 2012 via National Library of Australia.
  9. "A Man in a Queue". Albany Advertiser. W.A. 8 June 1950. p. 2. Retrieved 27 February 2012 via National Library of Australia.
  10. "AUSTRALIAN AUTHOR RETURNS HOME". The West Australian. Perth. 21 October 1953. p. 18. Retrieved 27 February 2012 via National Library of Australia.
  11. Murray Waldren, 'Jon Cleary: Character Builder' The Weekend Australian 1998
  12. "A MAN IN A QUEUE". The Beverley Times. WA. 24 March 1950. p. 6. Retrieved 18 October 2015 via National Library of Australia.
  13. "Jon Cleary", The Book Show – Radio National, 26 February 2006
  14. Cremen, Christine (18 October 2003). "A time for crime and for love". Sydney Morning Herald.
  15. Kimberley Community Profile, Oct 2010. Retrieved 24 June 2017
  16. "Jon Cleary: Interview" by Dianne Dempsey, Sun Herald, 5 October 1997, p. 43
  17. "Ned Kelly Awards". Australian Crime Fiction Database. Retrieved 15 September 2007.
  18. "JOY CLEARY: She's happy to let Jon be the author". The Australian Women's Weekly. 20 September 1961. p. 9. Retrieved 28 February 2012 via National Library of Australia.
  19. The Bulletin vol. 63 no. 3268. 30 September 1942 (p. 4)
  20. The Australian Journal vol. 79 no. 933. 1 December 1943 (pp. 681–82)
  21. The Australian Journal vol. 79 no. 930. 1 September 1943 (pp. 499–501)
  22. The Australian Journal vol. 79 no. 928. 1 July 1943 (pp. 384–85)
  23. The Australian Journal vol. 79 no. 927 1 June 1943 (pp. 331–334)
  24. The Australian Journal vol. 79 no. 925. 1 April 1943 (pp. 197–99, 206)
  25. The Australian Journal vol. 79 no. 935. 1 February 1944 (pp. 96, 101–04)
  26. The Australian Journal vol. 79 no. 944. 1 November 1944 (pp. 716–17)
  27. The Australian Journal vol. 79 no. 940. 1 July 1944 (pp. 437–41)
  28. Coast to Coast : Australian Stories, 1943 Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1944 (pp. 32–42)
  29. The Australian Journal vol. 80 no. 949. 1 April 1945 (pp. 249–51, 254–55)
  30. "The Sydney Morning Herald short story: Brandy Martin & My Old Man". The Sydney Morning Herald. 18 July 1945. p. 7. Retrieved 27 February 2012 via National Library of Australia.
  31. "The Sydney Morning Herald short story". Sydney Morning Herald. 8 August 1945. p. 7. Retrieved 27 February 2012 via National Library of Australia.
  32. The Australian Journal vol. 80 no. 946. 1 January 1945 (pp. 17–21)
  33. "Late Date". Sydney Morning Herald. 2 April 1946. p. 4 (Supplement: The Sydney Morning Herald Magazine). Retrieved 27 February 2012 via National Library of Australia.
  34. "The Stranger". Sydney Morning Herald. 4 June 1946. p. 7 Supplement: The Sydney Morning Herald Magazine. Retrieved 27 February 2012 via National Library of Australia.
  35. "See you [?] on the bus". The Mail. Adelaide. 7 September 1946. p. 1 Supplement: Sunday Magazine. Retrieved 27 February 2012 via National Library of Australia.
  36. The Australian Journal vol.81 no.961, 1 April 1946 (pp. 268–71, 285–88)
  37. The Australian Journal vol.83 no.986 1 May 1948 (pp. 360–63)
  38. Times Pictorial Dublin, Ireland; 3 November 1951, p. 14.
  39. Blue Book Magazine vol.93 no.2 June 1951 (pp.84–89)
  40. This story was serialised in the Sydney Morning Herald in 1954 on 13 Feb, 15 Feb, 16 Feb, 17 Feb, 18 Feb, 19 Feb, 20 Feb Pt 1, 20 Feb Pt 2, 22 Feb, 23 Feb, 25 Feb, 26 Feb
  41. "THE WEEKLY ROUND". The Australian Women's Weekly. 25 October 1961. p. 2. Retrieved 10 March 2012 via National Library of Australia.
  42. Jeremy Duns, 'The name's Blaize...' The Sunday Times, 7 March 2010 ST-1
  43. "Stuntman on the Bike Tracks". The Australian Women's Weekly. 26 June 1974. p. 49. Retrieved 28 February 2012 via National Library of Australia.
  44. ""I'm disenchanted with Sydney...but it's home"". The Australian Women's Weekly. 30 July 1969. p. 13. Retrieved 28 February 2012 via National Library of Australia.
  45. "Two Books Due From Jon Cleary". The Advertiser. Adelaide. 27 December 1947. p. 9. Retrieved 6 March 2012 via National Library of Australia.
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