Disgraced former Queensland police commissioner Terry Lewis with wife Hazel in 1988.THREE CROOKED KINGS
Matthew Condon. UQP. 346pp. $29.95.
The rising popularity of the true crime genre means that the current generation is much more likely to learn about the vices of earlier Australians than it otherwise would. Yet investigative journalists who write in this style know that the genre should come with a user-warning for intending authors. By wrapping a bright cover around it and slapping the words “explosive true story” on the front, the publisher of true crime promises titillation as well as the facts. The journalist who ventures into true crime continually juggles the roles of investigator and entertainer.
Inevitably, the genre adds lustre to the criminal legend, since its conventions dictate that “bad guys” are humanised while their crimes are objectified. Thus in chapter one of Matthew Condon’s Three Crooked Kings, the story of police corruption in Queensland from the 1940s to ’70s, we meet a police cadet “with the face of a hurt, vulnerable boy”. This is Terry Lewis, abandoned by his unloving mother at the age of 10, and estranged from his father, a humble storeman, by the time he joined the force at just 20. The young policeman becomes an overachiever: “Deeds, he believed, were more important than words. He proved his worth by doing.”
Terry Lewis rose to be police commissioner before revelations at the Fitzgerald Inquiry into corruption in the late 1980s led to his trial and conviction. The charges against him included accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes to protect vice and illegal gaming. He was sentenced to 14 years and served 10. His appeals failed. Some readers might think such facts warrant mention in Three Crooked Kings but they do not appear, beyond a reference in the back-cover blurb to Lewis as a “deposed and jailed former police commissioner”.
Apparently this part of the story must wait for Condon’s sequel, which the last line of the final chapter tells us is “coming in late 2013”. Delayed revelation is the stock-in-trade of crime writers, but its use in such a serious context is questionable. It highlights that Three Crooked Kings is a genre-bender rather awkwardly positioned between true crime and traditional journalistic expose.
The book came about after Condon was introduced to Lewis, who “decided, at the age of 83, that he wanted his story told”. The two men embarked on a series of interviews lasting almost three years, an author’s note tells us. Lewis also gave the writer access to diaries and other materials. Condon, a journalist as well as a talented novelist, obviously struggled conscientiously with the burden of this unlooked-for opportunity, interviewing hundreds of other people: “On several occasions, Lewis’s version of events and my own research took different paths.” Perhaps it’s as a result of his endeavour to present “a balanced story” that the playful, vivid prose of Condon’s fiction is largely absent here. Much of the narrative unfolds in the style of an extended police-rounds feature, with the hedges, clumsy segues, elisions and repetitions inherent in that type of journalism. One senses the reporter looking back over his shoulder respectfully towards the journalists who blazed the trail he pursues and who, between them, have already covered most of its territory: the Dickies, Masters and Whittons.
In its most accomplished writing, Three Crooked Kings paints a compellingly dark picture of the backwardness of Brisbane 60 years ago. The theme of recurrent police corruption in Queensland has previously been exposed by historians (and by the Fitzgerald Report itself). Here, Condon brings it to life memorably, most enjoyably in the story of corrupt police commissioner Frank Bischof’s campaign to stamp out rock’n’roll culture in the early ’60s – something that Brisbane fans of punk music in the early ’80s would relate to.
One might hope that three years of interviews with a convicted cop would yield more of his personal philosophy, and some fresh insight into how the persistent rumour got started that he was Bischof’s bagman. Instead, there is unreconstructed self-justification. Lewis was waiting outside [in the car] when his corrupt colleague went in and told the prostitute the price of police protection was going up … and so on. The most significant revelation he makes concerns Brisbane’s infamous National Hotel in the early 1960s, and scandalous extracurricular police conduct there – none of it his, of course.
Sybil Nolan covered the Fitzgerald Inquiry proceedings as a journalist. Matthew Condon will be a guest at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, May 20-26.
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