The sinister misdeeds of Queensland’s most notorious criminals occupy most of author Matthew Condon’s working life. The UQ graduate shared his thoughts on true crime and the power of storytelling with Contact.
True crime author Matthew Condon has a theory: we’re all one twist of fate away from committing murder.
“We start out the same, so why do some people go down that dark path?” Condon said.
“I’m fascinated by how one moment – a fraction of a second – can put you on a different trajectory.”
In fact, the award-winning author, journalist and UQ graduate (Bachelor of Arts ’82) believes all of humankind shares this fixation – and that it has contributed to the rise in popularity of the true crime genre.
“We’re endlessly fascinated by murder because to most of us, it’s incomprehensible,” he said.
“But who hasn’t asked themselves: in what context might I commit murder? Would I do it to protect my children?
“There’s something in us that we don’t necessarily want to recognise. Voyeuristically, we can experience it through the stories of others.”
Condon is the author of the best-selling Three Crooked Kings trilogy, chronicling the rise and fall of disgraced former Queensland police commissioner Terry Lewis, and the corruption that plagued the state’s police force and government for decades.
Queensland’s ‘Angel of Death’ was sentenced to life in prison in 2017 for the brutal murders of Barbara McCulkin and her two young daughters more than 40 years earlier.
“I was the same age as the youngest daughter, Leanne, when the McCulkins disappeared in 1974,” Condon said.
“Their childhood was my childhood, and I couldn’t comprehend how the case had never been solved.
“When O’Dempsey was finally arrested in 2014, it was a game-changer. He spent a lifetime being a shadow, so when he was standing in the dock of the court with handcuffs on, I thought, ‘he’s a real person’. That’s when I began trying to get a picture of his life.”
"We’re endlessly fascinated by murder because to most of us, it’s incomprehensible."
But Condon’s writing career wasn’t always immersed in the murky stories of Queensland’s underbelly.
Armed with a manual typewriter, he began writing novella-style poems and vignettes. He published his first short story in Semper Floreat, UQ’s student magazine.
“I remember living at St Leo’s College, pedalling up to the bookshop on my bike to get that edition of Semper hot off the press.”
After graduation, he embarked on a career in journalism while he worked towards his dream of becoming a best-selling fiction writer.
He cut his teeth at the Gold Coast Bulletin and went on to work for newspapers including The Courier-Mail, The Daily Telegraph, The Sunday Age, and The Sun-Herald.
On the side, Condon diligently plugged away at what would become his first novel, The Motorcycle Cafe, which he published at age 26.
Over the years, he has published 10 acclaimed works of fiction and six non-fiction books, and received several prestigious fellowships and awards – including a Medal of the Order of Australia – all while continuing to work as a journalist.
Until 2013, one genre remained virtually unexplored: true crime. That all changed after his fateful interview with Lewis, the eventual subject of Three Crooked Kings.
Six years later, Condon said one of the most rewarding parts of the work was engaging with people who had their own stories about the subjects of his books.
“All of my true crime books are interconnected, part of a mosaic, and thousands of people out there have experienced a little bit of this story,” he said.
“I’ve had people contact me and say, ‘I was there that day and this is what I saw; I’ve never spoken before’. It’s almost like the entire Queensland community has gotten behind me to fill in the gaps of this picture.”
As for what’s next, Condon has a few ideas brewing, including a potential book on 10 of the most significant unsolved murders connected to the Vincent O’Dempsey saga.
“I’ve got enough stories to fill the rest of my life, easily. It’s exciting to think about.”
Image: Anjanette Webb
About The Night Dragon
The Night Dragon is the first book detailing the astonishing rise and fall of convicted killer Vincent O’Dempsey. Award-winning investigative journalist Matthew Condon has interviewed dozens of ex-cons, police and witnesses to put together a compelling picture of the calculating killer who spent his life evading the law before he was finally brought to justice.
Visit the University of Queensland Press (UQP) to see more upcoming titles.