In complete control of the genre, Matt Condon adds his own secret herbs and spices to his collection of murder mysteries: an uncanny knack for writing great characters, a gift for observation and description of place, and a splash of poetic and cinematic imagery. The result is The Toe Tag Quintet, a brilliant romp through the sweaty, flatulent underbelly of south-east Queensland.
The unnamed protagonist of this collection of stories is the quintessential fool, telling truth to those in power and rushing in where angels fear to tread, with no thought of the consequences. Condon’s lovable rogue is irresistible. Ever since he retired from his former job as a hard-nut, boofhead Sydney cop, he’s been up to his arse in murder investigations. He doesn’t consciously seek out trouble, but it’s not his fault that it’s not only cops who retire to the sunny daze of the Gold Coast. His wife, the ‘indefatigable Peg’, reckons:
… [his] retirement had become some sort of subconscious frustration that he could only salve by creating the drama of [his] previous working life and that this, in turn, might go back to … undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder.
Peg is probably right, of course – she invariably is – but she can’t convince him to get a normal hobby like other men his age. Sure, he has his tinny PigPen for fishing on the broadwater, and he lovingly maintains his vintage Peugot, but really he simply can’t face the tedium of being kept from the mental stimulation and complete joy of doing what he knows best – solving a mystery.
Peg keeps his feet on the ground and his heart in the right place, though she thinks he is becoming boorish (he is a bit of a grumpy old man); but the image of him sprawled belly-up on his banana chair, Esky at his side, is weirdly endearing. I know these men – bandy-legged, liver-skinned, opinionated bullies, bastardised by their socialisation to be ‘men’ in a certain time and place in our culture who are, as their wives know, really just big softies who prefer to go by cuddly big-eyed pet names in the privacy of their love relationships.
This man is redeemed by the fact that he can learn from experience, works at gaining self-knowledge and knows deep down that his life really has amounted to something because he is keenly aware of what failure looks like. He has seen the tragedy of lonely middle-aged men cast out of the warm glow of family and relationships and he knows how precious it is to be loved, not only by Peg, but also by the men he has himself loved and respected during his life.
He suffers what many men find when faced with retirement: the boredom of nothing to absorb his time and considerable intellectual energy, but also loneliness as, one by one, friends fall off the perch, seldom from natural causes. In ‘Murder on the Vine’, his food-critic pal Zim is murdered; in ‘Murder, She Tweeted’ he loses Father Dill and the bright possibility of reconnection, and is forced, in the final story, ‘The Good Murder Guide’, to revisit the pain of the murder of Obi, his mentor in the force all those years ago.
Like Corris’s Sydney, Toe Tag’s setting looms as large a character as Condon’s boisterous protagonist, garish and gauche as the very light of the place itself. In his fruit-salad shirts and deck shoes, our colourful hero sticks out like dog’s balls against the beige hard surfaces, angles and chrome of modern Brisbane. Like a painter, Condon renders his setting in a complex three-dimensional spatial reality. In ‘Murder, She Tweeted’, his narrator moves across the tiled desert of King George Square, down into the depths of the sinking foundations of the Brisbane City Hall then up to the very top of its marble-skinned tower, where the reader finds him upside down, awaiting the toll of the bell to smash his head to smithereens. And there is fantastic depth of field as he strides across the Southbank library forecourt then moves from Queensland’s sub-tropical glare into cool deep shadows, high-contrast as a film-noir flick.
But his angst is countered by Condon’s addictive ironic humour and the stories barrel along at such a pace it’s easy to overlook the subtle undertones of mood and message. The Toe Tag Quintet keeps on giving long after the initial rush is over and resonates in the manner of literary fiction, thematically informed by an intimate knowledge of place and its psychosis; how evil inheritance can pass the sins of the fathers on through generations; how information is power and how secrets pervert society.
With his new non-fiction book Three Crooked Kings just published and an instant bestseller in Queensland, Condon is an expert on secrets and lies. He has lived and breathed them, researching the era of the rat pack, especially Terry Lewis, the very high-ranking cop who went down on corruption charges resulting from the Fitzgerald Inquiry in the 1980s. The history of corruption in Queensland makes Toe Tag’s situations involving government and greed-heads completely plausible. Although set some 30 years later, Toe Tag borrows a great deal from Condon’s true crime research. Three Crooked Kings claims in its blurb that:
This could equally be the blurb for The Toe Tag Quintet.
Three Crooked Kings delivers its promised ‘explosive true story’. Condon marshals all his accomplished fiction techniques to recount the complex chain of events that led a young man into temptation. Lewis did time for corruption but still maintains his innocence, and Condon is extremely careful to let the record speak loudest, which often throws up more questions than it answers. With access to Lewis’s obsessive diaries and an archive containing documents of every aspect of his professional life, the most arduous task of researching this must have been wading through the sheer weight of information. But Condon finds the threads, picks them up and twines them into a fabulous tale of graft, extortion, sex, drugs and mayhem that makes Brisbane seem much more vibrant and multi-dimensional than it actually was for most people back then struggling to just get by.
The book takes Lewis’s story up to the moment that Joh Bjelke-Petersen decided he needed to shore up police morale, dismally low as a result of Commissioner Whitrod’s attempt to clean up the force. The final scenes in 1976, when Lewis meets the Premier, coincide with my coming of age in Queensland when I found out first-hand the truth of Queensland’s police corruption. In the late 1970s I was a student, part of the rabble throwing ourselves at police cordons and the gaping mouths of paddy wagons. They had our names and addresses and took photos of us at marches to intimidate us into shutting up. If we didn’t, they came with their dogs, raided our share-houses under the ‘Health’ Act and fitted us up with fake drug charges.
Later, as I got older I saw from my vantage point in the art world what was really going on. Illegal gaming joints and strip clubs (and the airport) were the only places you could get a drink after 10pm in Brisbane. We’d go out to dinner to entertain out-of-town visitors, then repair to the World By Night. Invariably, there’d be a table of cops sucking up free drinks and one of the best strip shows in the country – non-existent according to big Russ Hinze, minister for everything you could make a buck out of on the side (especially police). The lie was palpable to anyone who cared to look. Cognitive dissonance was their secret weapon; people couldn’t or just didn’t want to believe that they had been taken to the cleaners all those years.
So, I for one am hanging out for the sequel to Three Crooked Kings – All Fall Down – to be published later this year, which will take up the next instalment of Lewis’s rule as Commissioner of Police and his involvement in the events that led to the Fitzgerald Inquiry. It is this history that informs the world of The Toe Tag Quintet, still, it seems, populated with corrupt public servants, politicians, crims and cops. Amid the glossy glamour of galleries and swish restaurants, Establishment members still meet to trade influence and entrench themselves in each other’s propaganda. In Condon’s Queensland, the worst crooks are the flash-Harrys and rats with gold teeth at the big end of town.
As with his fiction, Condon pays meticulous attention to detail in setting Three Crooked Kings in an earlier, down-at-heel, greener and lower-rise Brisbane, creating the illusion of a concrete reality; but in that illusion lies deeper truth. In those days before faxes, when police travelled by public transport and busted vagrants sleeping rough among the roots of giant figs or looked for missing persons under the river’s bridges, you can imagine how corruption could take hold and fester in the steamy sub-tropical town not much bigger than Toowoomba is today. People come to life in Condon’s particular, finely wrought spaces. The image of Lewis, sweating into his starched collar under a vast sky on the dusty edges of the Cunnamulla airport, chatting to Joh, is brought home simply by reference to his diary: ‘We were standing by the fence. It was hot, I was in my full uniform.’ Condon’s deft touch makes both his history and his fiction immediate, engaging and riveting.
Both books are underpinned by the idea that history and the past are rarely what they seem. They are always up for review and revision by those interested in the truth. We rely on our historians to discover and refute the lies we tell ourselves about our past and who, like Condon’s Toe Tag detective and himself as author of Three Crooked Kings, are prepared to lead us through the labyrinth, fearless of consequences, determined that the truth will out.
Matthew Condon The Toe Tag Quintet, Random House, 2012, PB, 352pp, $27.95
Matthew Condon Three Crooked Kings UQP 2013 PB 352pp $29.95
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