By John Mebberson
When Matthew Condon read a passage from his latest novel, The Toe Tag Quintet, in the bowels of Ashfield Library on a cold, wet evening the audience could not help but laugh at the absurd notion of a hardened ex-detective pining after an old Kombi van.
The author describes his retired protagonist yearning for his youth while remembering a past career that included cracking criminal’s heads as a member of a Sydney vice squad. “I was once a great believer in the eight-point philosophy of persuasion,” says the un-named main character. “That’d be the eight bony points revealed when you close both fists.”
“I loved this character so much,” said Matthew. “He’s rude, he’s disgusting, he says what he thinks.”
His inspiration came from a senior police officer – a real tough cop – who retired to the Gold Coast after a life of blood and guns to take up one filled with floral shirts. In a vain attempt to avoid his history, he soon discovers that gangsters have to retire too.
Real life cops are not unfamiliar to Matthew but they are usually far more serious. He remarks darkly: “Fiction is a dream compared to what people are capable of doing to each other.” He knows this well after writing his non-fiction book, Three Crooked Kings, which examined decades of Queensland’s systemic police corruption, including the Fitzgerald Inquiry and material sourced from numerous interviews with Terry Lewis, the former Queensland Police Commissioner and convicted criminal.
The experience of interviewing the disgraced police head shocked and depressed him. “I snapped,” said Matthew, recounting a low moment with his subject. “I’m sick to the eye-teeth of being immersed in the filth, the games the police play, the lives they ruined, and didn’t think anything of it. When it’s finished I’m going to have a long hot shower and wash you and all of them off me.”
His research for Three Crooked Kings revealed how close corrupt police are to the criminals they chase. “The modus operandi is almost identical. It’s just that one wears a badge and one doesn’t.”
He feels a duty to keep working on a second book on the topic. “It has to be told if it’s true,” he says. “I’m so far down the track it would be remiss of me not to follow this through and present it as part of our history to the people of Queensland and Australia.”
Matthew also wrote the non-fiction account of his hometown, Brisbane, as part of the NewSouth Press series of books on Australian cities: “It got my hands back into the soil of my city.”
He said as a young boy he was inspired by novelist Peter Carey and he loved the vivid style of Thea Astley. He recalled a moment with her: “We sat under a tree at the Byron Bay Festival and had a talk about Brisbane and literature. She died a few weeks later. I’ll always remember that moment.”
According to Matthew, writing is one of the hardest jobs in the world and a noble, worthwhile pursuit. When asked what makes a good book he replied: “It has to be a simple story, a good story told cleanly and clearly, and if you can have fun, have some fun.”