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‘He takes you in the middle of the night, like an angel, and you’re gone for good,a witness at serial killer Vincent O’Dempsey’s committal hearing in 2015.

After murdering Barabara McCulkin and her two daughers, and being linked to several other cold case killings, O’Demsey was finally sentenced to life in prison in 2017. In The Night Dragon, investigative journalist and novelist Matthew Condon pours nine years of research into a compelling portrait of this calculating criminal who dodged the law for decades. Here Matthew tells Good Reading why writing the book was ‘a race against time’.


The Night Dragon is the fifth volume in your chronicle of Queensland crime and corruption in the 20th century. What’s different about this book compared to the others in the series?

The trilogy and its companion volume traversed decades of criminal and political corruption. Over time I’ve seen this epic project as a monstrous fig tree with hundreds of attendant branches. The Night Dragon deals with one of those branch stories, albeit an important one, that being the Whisky Au Go Go firebombing and mass murder in 1973 and the murder of Barbara McCulkin and her two daughters in 1974.

The murder of Barbara McCulkin and her two daughters was unresolved for over 40 years. What is the impact of a crime like this on the consciousness of the community?

I think the unresolved triple murder had a huge impact on community consciousness over decades. Until its resolution in 2017 it remained one of Queensland’s oldest cold cases. This was a hideous crime perpetrated on innocents, especially the children, who were just 11 and 13 at the time. Their childhoods up until their deaths were all of our childhoods. An unsolved crime like is a burr in the social fabric. It lingers. The house where they lived in inner-Brisbane remains unchanged from the day they were all taken in the summer of 1974. It’s as if the house refused to change until the case was solved.

What was it like being there on the day of sentencing, when Vincent O’Dempsey and his accomplice Garry Dubois were finally brought to justice? 

It was an extraordinary day for many reasons. Justice was served, first and foremost. But at his sentencing O’Dempsey asked if he could address the court – it was highly irregular – and protested his innocence. He then declared he had nothing to do with the Whiskey Au Go Go fire. That assertion was challenged by the presiding Justice Peter Applegarth, and suddenly an unexpected window was opened on the Whiskey atrocity. Incredible.

What are some of the challenges of researching historical crime, especially when events took place so long ago?

Every project like this is a race against time. Some key figures passed away before publication of the book. And that significant historical distance, certainly in this case it was almost half a century since these crimes were committed, makes it more difficult to draw and accurate picture. 

You have been researching this book for over nine years, including face-to-face interviews with ex-cons, police and witnesses. What was one of the most memorable conversations you had?

I’ve had dozens and dozens of memorable conversations, but I think the most impactful have been discussions with literally hundreds of honest policemen and women who were driven from their profession because they tried to stand up and do the right thing in the face of endemic corruption, or had been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Those good people have stayed with me.

From your point of view, how far has Queensland come from this volatile period of crime and corruption in the 1970s? 

I think Queensland has come a very long way since the “wild west” of the 1970s, and the police corruption that not only allowed serious crimes to occur but was behind some of them. There will always be corruption, to some degree, but I can’t see how that entrenched old style system could survive contemporary scrutiny.

Parts of this story still remain unresolved, including the recovery of the victims’ bodies. Will you continue to follow and document the story?

Yes. Each book spawns more contacts, documents, emails and other stories. It has been like unwittingly sailing an ocean liner into the Pacific. I can no longer see how to turn it around and get back to my home port.

The Night Dragon by Matthew Condon is out now from UQP, rrp $32.95. 

Matthew will be appearing at the Sydney Writers Festival in May in events including a talk about The Night Dragon at Hawksbury Library and a free chat about the book at Carriageworks

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