Meticulously researched, broad in its historical scope, Jacks and Jokers (QUP, 2014), the second books in Matthew Condon’s examination of police corruption in Queensland from the late 1950s to the late 1980s, is among a wave of recent books that have redefined the craft of Australian true crime writing (John Safran’s Murder in Mississippi and Anna Krien’s Night Games, are two others).
Indeed, the label ‘true crime’ almost doesn’t seem a fitting way to describe what Condon has done in Jacks and Jokers or the first instalment, Three Crooked Kings (2013). The books almost form an alternative history of a period of Queensland’s development that has been much talked about and often parodied, but little known or understood, both in and outside of the Sunshine State.
As was the case with Three Crooked Kings, the narrative spine of Jacks and Jokers is the career of Terry Lewis. Lewis joined the Queensland police force at twenty and rose to be commissioner before the Fitzgerald Inquiry in the late 80s or, as it was formally known, The Commission of Inquiry into Possible Illegal Activities and Associated Police Misconduct, which led to his trial and conviction on various charges, including accepting vast amounts in bribes to protect vice and illegal gambling.
Condon begins Jacks and Jokers in 1976 with the aftermath of the rape of sex worker Mary Anne Brifman, daughter of brothel madam Shirley Brifman, whose illegal activities were detailed in Condon’s earlier book. Shirley Brifman was found dead of a drug overdose in March 1972 and the incident ruled a ‘suicide’, despite suspicious circumstances around her death and the fact she had turned whistle blower on the corrupt cops who had provided protection in exchange for money. Mary Anne only discovered after the fact that her rapist was a Queensland police officer who was never prosecuted for the crime.
It is one of many small historical connections Condon uses to make a larger point about the impunity with which sections of the police operated in pre-Fitzgerald Queensland. The book quickly shifts to the bigger picture. Lewis, exiled to the western Queensland town of Charleville, was appointed by the then Bjelke-Petersen Government as deputy police commissioner and then, in November 1976, commissioner. Of course, Lewis wasn’t working alone. As Condon makes clear, he was aided and encouraged by a group of fellow officers known as the ‘Rat Pack’: detective Tony Murphy, detective Glen Patrick Hallahan, and so-called ‘bagman’ and ex-member of the Queensland Licensing Branch, Jack Herbert.
While the outline of these events are broadly known, Jacks and Jokers chronicles the full extent of corruption and abuse of power that characterised the activities of the police force under Lewis. Condon reveals a hidden world of prostitution, illegal gambling, drug trafficking, political intimidation, corruption, paedophilia, and murder. He details the bizarre campaign waged by senior police to hound gays out of the police, including some particularly outspoken female officers who were smeared as lesbian troublemakers. Suspects were verballed with impunity; those who stood up and opposed what was going on were harassed, marginalised, had their reputation destroyed, were beaten up and even murdered.
Lewis provided Condon with access to his diaries and other material but ceased cooperation shortly after Jacks and Jokers was published and demanded all his material to be returned, which Condon duly did. While Lewis’s assistance was obviously important, Condon is careful not to make it the only strand of the story, and layers the former commissioner’s memories and diary entries with numerous other sources. Condon’s narrative is fluid and highly readable, only occasionally does it veer towards being too complex and unwieldy, as if Condon is struggling with trying to make sense of the sheer weight of information at his disposal, the names, places, dates, all the abuses that have occurred.
Condon took part in a recent panel on true crime I chaired as part of the Word for Word National Non-Fiction Festival, and expressed surprise at having found himself becoming a magnet for stories, tip-offs and documents from people across Queensland who, up until the publication of the first book, Three Crooked Kings, were too scared to come forward but who now feel enough time has passed to tell their story.
Condon’s book is especially topical given current events in Queensland. In a note distributed to attendees at a recent public lecture at Griffith University, Tony Fitzgerald, who headed up the inquiry that ended Lewis’s reign as police commissioner, wrote that power in the state had been transferred to ‘a small, cynical, political class … As matters stand, neither political party wants political standards to be a significant electoral issue and neither is willing to reform the flawed political process which they control and from which they each benefit.’
His comments came in the wake of the appointment of Judge Tim Carmody to the position of Chief Justice. Fitzgerald, among others, was critical of the appointment, given Carmody’s vocal support for the Newman government’s anti-bikie legislation, a fact Fitzgerald sees as helping to subvert the separation of powers, a prominent problem during the Bjelke-Petersen years.
It is something that Condon has also touched upon in his work as a journalist. In a piece in the Courier Mail in June, Condon wrote:
Queenslanders are at the water cooler talking about an era we thought had long vanished. The context, however, is whether after a little over two years of an LNP Newman Government, we are heading back to the future.
When enough moments of déjà vu accumulate, the sensation goes from curious to troubling to fear inducing. It took decades of hard work and personal suffering of many to bring sunshine back into Queensland following the Joh days. If the LNP thinks it can lower a Bjelke-Petersen/National Party-style government template over contemporary Queensland, it’s in for a rude shock.
We can only hope he is correct. Reviewing Jacks and Jokers for the Sydney Morning Herald earlier this year, Queensland historian Ross Fitzgerald (no relation to Tony) wrote: ‘The reality is that few journalists, lawyers and academics in Queensland publicly protested against Lewis and especially against his powerful premier, who was eventually awarded an honorary Doctorate of Laws by Queensland University.’
It is a point picked up on by Condon in Jacks and Jokers. While there was resistance to Bjelke-Petersen from sections of the community, the unending allegations of police and government corruption were largely met with apathy and ‘the public remained unmoved. Why?’
Part of the answer lies in the fact that the system operated by Lewis and the Rat Pack was highly profitable. Drugs, prostitution and illegal gambling became multi-million dollar industries that reached into many sections of Queensland society and more than a few people benefited. Queensland’s political system was gerrymandered in favour of more conservative sections of the population. Also, as Condon makes clear, having seen the consequences for those who did speak out, a lot of people kept silent.
Added to that is the combination of a hubristic premier with a massive political majority in the states single house of parliament, factors which characterise Queensland now as much as they did in the seventies.
Reading Jack and Jokers I couldn’t help but think of the sentiments expressed by Eric Hobsbawm in his excellent history of the twentieth century, The Age of Extremes, about the ways in which late capitalism has created a break between contemporary perception and memories and events of the past. ‘Most young men and women,’ he wrote, ‘grow up in a sort of permanent present lacking any organic relation to the public past of the times they live in.’
It is precisely its power in countering this lack of connection between the present and the past that makes Jacks and Jokers such an important work of history.