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.


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