The Life And Crimes Of Harry Lavender

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Marele Day’s character Claudia Valentine in The Life And Crimes Of Harry Lavender is more than just a way of showing Sydney. Claudia is a stereotypical hard-boiled detective, who in many ways fits the conventions of the private investigator typecast. But in a role reversal, she is a new interpretation of the detective. Her character has a heart, which loves the old Sydney of the past. She contrasts with Harry Lavender, who loves Sydney, but as a city of the future. Clearly, Day changed from simply using Claudia as a way of showing Sydney, as Claudia became the central character.


Initially, the setting of Sydney dominated the novel. There is no question that Sydney was always intended to be a major part of the book, as Day almost manages to personify the city as if it has a life of its own, constantly evolving and changing beyond control. Day’s choice of settings reflects her intention to showcase not only the finer points of the city, but also the seedier locations, the underbelly of Sydney filled with crime and corruption. From the glass skyscrapers and monorail that snakes its way through the city, to the dubious video arcades and drug-smuggling container terminals, the novel exhibits the highs and lows of Sydney, just like it would any character in the story. There is even a hint of history in the novel, as Claudia describes how the early convict colonies have evolved into the present-day city (pages 6-70). Day has wittingly weaved the city of Sydney into the novel, creating a backbone that the story is formed around.


To a degree, Claudia fits the stereotype of the hard-boiled detective. Day has created a cynical, hardened private investigator in the character of Claudia Valentine. Like a typical detective, Claudia has no qualms about physical violence or breaking the law when necessary, whilst constantly trying to unpick the finer details and be one step ahead of Harry Lavender. Her modest flat is characteristic of a detective, who lives alone and for whom domestic life is not a high priority. She is isolated from the world and finds it hard to form meaningful relationships, her career forcing her to become a ‘cold hard bitch, a cold hard monster’ (page 11). While Day conforms to many standards of the stereotype, she also challenges many of its conventions. Unlike most private investigators, Claudia shows her weaknesses and flaws, mistrusting innocent people and criticising herself constantly. A further aspect that Day overturns is the use of guns - Claudia contrasts herself to her ‘cowboy colleagues’ (page 0), Day subtly criticising conventional gun-toting male detectives.


However, Day innovates by creating a role reversal with the detective being female. Crime fiction has been traditionally written from the ‘male gaze’, with female characters tending to be given stereotyped ‘female’ behaviours and occupations. In the novel, Day explores the conventions of male-based crime fiction, turning them upon themselves to produce Claudia Valentine, whose narration from a female point of view provides an interesting modification from the typical stories of the genre. Claudia maintains throughout the novel that women, unlike men, have skills other than brute strength and weapons, and people are often ’less guarded, less wary’ (page 1) when it comes to dealing with female detectives. While Claudia is somewhat masculine in some respects, such as her drinking habits, penchant for one-night stands and her strong physical ability, her romanticism and ever-present maternal concern for her children provide reminders that however tough her exterior, Claudia is very much a womanly character.


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Claudia, at heart, loved the soul of the city and its past. From the last of the ‘old-time doctors’ (page 1), to the demolition of the historical buildings of Sydney long ago, Claudia is dismayed that Sydney is changing from the city she grew up with, into a corrupted empire where morals are obsolete and ’money is the greatest equaliser’ (page 7). Even Mr and Mrs Levack, with their old-fashioned suburban ordinariness, are a reminder of times past, when bile-green carpet was the epitome of style and phones were never answered with an impersonal recording. The city she knew as a child is slowly fading, being swallowed by the dishonesty of the facades that obscure the corruption from view of the citizens.


Claudia is the opposite of Harry Lavender, who loved the Sydney of the future, and corrupted and destroyed the city. To an extent, the novel is about Claudia trying to save the city from Harry Lavender’s ever-spreading criminal cancer. Although Claudia loves the city, she doesn’t approve of the reckless developments by individuals who replace the old, historic buildings with modern skyscrapers to show off their wealth and power which, ironically, is exactly what Harry Lavender talks of in his monologues. When Claudia talks of Sydney, she does so as if the city is alive, a living thing with which she has some kind of connection. In contrast, when Harry discusses the city, he treats it simply as an object, as something to be controlled and manipulated.


While the character of Claudia Valentine in Marele Day’s The Life And Crimes Of Harry Lavender is certainly a vehicle for showing Sydney, she develops into an important part of the story in her own right, and is undoubtedly the focal point of the novel. Claudia, although dissimilar to a conventional detective in many ways, is the stereotypical private investigator that is standard in the crime fiction genre. However, her being a female detective as opposed to the usual male provides a refreshing alternative and gives new life to the story. Claudia’s love of the Sydney of the past is evident throughout the novel, and provides an interesting diversion as the novel subconsciously battles between the city of the past and the city of the future. The character of Harry Lavender adds to this, as he contrasts with Claudia Valentine in his love for the Sydney of the future, with its technology and the continuing domination it allows him to maintain. Evidently, while Sydney is the backbone of the novel, Claudia Valentine is unmistakably the pivotal feature of the novel, and develops into far more than a means for showcasing the city of Sydney.


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