Reviewed by Ian Lipke
With memories of the Three Crooked Kings series still fresh in my mind I turned to Matthew Condon’s The Night Dragon. Readers who want to be titillated by stories of criminals doing crooked things, or committing murderous crimes, might get off on these books, but they are not a genre I have dreams about. Yet I enjoy crime fiction. I also enjoy Matthew Condon’s writing as a journalist with many years of experience and as a writer of fiction.
But this review is about Matthew Condon’s work when he tells how the combination of a cold case, a spectacular but deadly fire and a singular pursuit of justice led to the convictions in 2017 of Vincent O’Dempsey and Garry ‘Shorty’ Dubois for the murders of the McCulkin family. The question is: how well does Condon relate the details leading to conviction and, paired with this, how well does he exclude interesting, dramatic but irrelevant material from his recount?
The book’s title is an emotive one, combining with dramatic colours to dredge up from somewhere unsavoury thoughts of malicious and exotic evil. Its use, to depict O’Dempsey as a dragon, worse a night dragon, a figure throughout the ages representative of evil, is allowable given the stealth with which this particular criminal planned his murderous attacks. The title together with the lurid cover suggest to me that what I am about to read will not be straight newspaper journalism, but rather the same factual matter organised to arouse the emotions of the readership, to involve them in what they’re about to read. That is the impression, and impressions can be powerful persuaders…and sometimes they can be wrong.
The book begins with an italicised word picture of Vincent O’Dempsey. It takes the view that the evidence has been presented and weighed and a decision has been reached. Finality, therefore, gives the writer freedom to describe the guilty man in these words:
Even in profile, he had a bird-like countenance. His penetrating black eyes and the slight, almost imperceptible movements of his head were like that of a hawk, attuned to the slightest shift in the landscape, or the potential for a trap…the man with his own private graveyard…the Angel of Death who comes for you at night (1).
This tells us that the book will not be about proving guilt since that has already been established but rather it will document how this felon was brought to trial and found guilty. Or will it? It is an emotive view of a man, certainly not a factual one.
Matthew Condon has spent countless hours documenting the anecdotes he recounts in this book. He deserves unstinted credit for his labours and for the quality of his material. Moreover, his accounts are clear, the language direct.
The factual content appears on page 3 with the heading Day of Reckoning. Since there is no Table of Contents, the reader must assume that this is the first chapter or the first part that will consist in a number of subordinate chapters. In fact Day of Reckoning might be accepted without question were it not for the fact that no such day appears before page 275 or thereabouts when the judge pronounces sentence. The intervening pages are devoted to the lives and activities of various criminals who are linked in strong or tenuous fashion to O’Dempsey and/or Dubois. What Condon has given us is a ragbag of bits that might or might not have anything significant to say about a day of reckoning for two murderous thugs.
My impression of the book’s construction is an ‘almost Day of Reckoning’ followed by a shopping list of crimes, criminals or ‘possibly criminals’ linked in one fashion or another to O’Dempsey and his fellow man in the dock Dubois. The link between all this ‘stuff’ and the day of reckoning in Judge Applegarth’s courtroom is not at all clear. If I were to sift the plethora of accounts that Condon supplies, I would find the details leading to the convictions. But should any reader be required to separate the chaff from the grain?
Readers will need to think about that.
By Matthew Condon
University of Queensland Press