matthew condon, three crooked kings & jacks and jokers

Today’s guest post is from the criminally lovely Liz Barr.

Growing up in Brisbane in the ’90s, I was acutely aware of the Bjelke-Petersen era. Maybe because I had a political family — my conservative parents have only recently conceded that Joh’s government was not, in fact, the victim of a left wing plot — or because I read a lot of biographies of local musicians, and they all had memories of Cloudland and being hassled by the cops.

Now I live in Melbourne, but I still follow Queensland politics. Campbell Newman’s ongoing attempt to relive Joh’s glory days sparked an interest in Brisbane’s history of corruption, so I headed to the library and found Matthew Condon’s Three Crooked Kings and Jacks and Jokers.

And what a history it is. Condon follows the career of Terry Lewis, from his first days as a cop in the ’50s to his unexpected and dubious promotion to police commissioner in 1976. Along the way, we learn that there are all kinds of police corruption, from blackmailing young women known to have visited abortionists to taking payments and turning a blind eye towards illegal casinos and sex shops. Condon has spoken to Lewis himself at length, but keeps him at a distance, directing the reader’s attention to new twists on old lies.

The framing device — the murder of Shirley Brifman, a prostitute turned whistleblower and the rape of her daughter, both crimes committed by police officers — borders on the exploitative. But this is not a world that treats women well. Condon only foreshadows the terrible experiences of Lorelle Saunders, Queensland’s first female police detective, who was framed for attempted murder and spent ten months in jail, eventually placing herself in solitary confinement to escape the abuse of guards and prisoners. She was ultimately exonerated and reinstated — but the bulk of her story is reserved for the third book in Condon’s trilogy, due in 2015.

It’s a complex pair of books, with characters appearing for a few pages before vanishing again, to import drugs into Far North Queensland, or to fabricate evidence against a possible mass murderer, or to leak information to the press that leads to two people being murdered. A corrupt cop’s work is never done, and if the reader doesn’t pay attention, she’ll be lost. Wait, when did the bank-that-was-a-front-for-drug-importers-and-also-the-CIA turn up? Who owns that nightclub? Did student protesters really march all the way from St Lucia to the CBD?

Queensland has tried to shrug this history off, but you can catch glimpses here and there, of heritage buildings torn down in the middle of the night, the dodgy brothels that still exist in the Valley, in the way the police keep stopping my mum’s pastor as he rides his Harley to church. Condon demonstrates that the era of the Moonlight State was seedier, stranger and more shocking than anyone realised.

Arrested and charged with the trafficking of books. Charges dismissed after bribing the judge with some new releases. Small. Ginger. Enjoys history, cephalopods and tween media.

tracy ryan, claustrophobia

On the back of my last post commending a book’s cover, I should take a moment to admire Claustrophobia‘s, too. Look at that colour scheme. It’s – what – dusk? But on a sunny day, in a convertible, lookin cool. There’s not a snowflake, a silhouette, or a creepy-looking tree to be found. Which fits with the book itself: while there is an unnerving undercurrent the whole way through, it is no gore-splattered forensic crime. This tends towards the psychological end of the crime genre scale, and also tends all the way west on the Australian fiction scale, ending up in Perth, Western Australia.

Pen Barber is a woman who has found her rut in life and shaped herself to fit in it. She has a job she likes enough with colleagues who fluctuate between nice-ish and patronising; a mother who she sees a lot and who made me feel anxious just by reading her; a house in the Perth almost-wilderness and a husband, Derek, with whom she shares everything: her job, her interests, her chocolate. Then they decide to renovate their home, and in the cleaning frenzy that follows such a decision, Pen finds a letter that throws her completely off-kilter. When Derek was at university, one of his female professors seduced him, ditched him, and caused a fracture in Derek’s mental health. In Pen’s hands, she holds a letter he wrote to the professor, Kathleen Nancarrow, a few years after that incident. The words rake at her heart. And with them, she decides the only way to protect her beloved husband is to find this woman and make sure she won’t hurt him again. Pen doesn’t know how, but she has things on her side: the internet, time, and the element of surprise.

Pen is a hard character to place. You feel the ache of her life: one that seems perfect but doesn’t quite fit her like it should. She seems capable of much more than you expect – she did set out to stalk someone, after all – but remains human all the while, messing up her vengeance in small, sighted ways, then taking more risks, until the real-life Kathleen Nancarrow – beautiful, smart, charming Kathleen Nancarrow – changes her gameplan entirely.

Ryan’s publisher, Transit Lounge, have a real knack for finding things that feel quite modern and fresh (there’s a word I don’t like using, but feels apt all the same) and Australian; it floods every page. There’s local vernacular, but natural, not to make you cringe; there are trees, and landscape, and wildlife that flits in and out of a university cafe. There is passion, and that life-sized claustrophobia that your world can induce.

It’s also been likened to Gone Girl, which, well, at least it’s about a woman who is hiding a secret that grows with every page, so maybe I’ll give this one a pass. An editing decision that threw me was to have Pen’s thoughts in quotation marks – it’s written in the third person – which made me occasionally think she was having a conversation out loud instead of in her head and would sometimes throw me off. But it’s a very minor point in a book that was a disquieting kind of read – but in the good kind of way.