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Book review: <i>The Toe Tag Quintet</i> by Matthew Condon

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the cover of the book

A good, solid collection of crime-solving tales, infused with big pinch of Australiana and a twinkle in the eye.

The story

A crotchety old detective, who spent the larger part of his life policing the scummy streets of west Sydney, decides it's time. He and his long suffering wife, Peg, make the move up Queensland way for sun, relaxation, and retirement. Something low key, with beer and fishing and the odd “project” to keep him happy. He knows he's getting on in years, he's done all he can, and frankly, he just wants to spend some quality time with Peg before he shoots headlong into his twilight years. But the Queensland crims have other ideas.

Be there a mystery surrounding lost artworks, a man two centuries dead, a mystery bottle of wine, an Australian saint, or a terrible conspiracy of police corruption, our long suffering protagonist is hurtled headlong into each plot. His only faults being that he knows everyone, and has a natural curiosity, he certainly doesn't have the desire to be shot at constantly throughout the early years of his retirement, but that seems to be what is happening, much to the irritation of poor Peg.

But what's a man to do, when there's so much crime not being solved, and so many open cases to put to rest?

The style

The Toe Tag Quintet could have just been your run of the mill crime fiction. Not that there's anything wrong with that, as a read; sometimes I just want to read something utterly paint-by-numbers and for that I usually turn to the crime genre. I was pleased to get The Toe Tag Quintet right before Christmas; having some time off in the country with a lot of long hot afternoons for reading on the lawn and this book seemed just the ticket. Like I said, it could have been run of the mill, but The Toe Tag Quintet manages to distinguish itself from the crowd, and be even better, without being unduly difficult as a holiday read.

So you have a crotchety old detective protagonist. Yup, know that one. I'm thinking Dalziel and Pascoe, I'm particularly thinking DI Rebus. Thanks to Ian Rankin, crotchety old detectives who grumble and cut through political tape and have a soft side and an external luddite side who's willing to learn and always get their man are practically mandatory in the crime genre. But Matthew Condon, with extreme but understated success, manages to make his protagonist all of those things, but also completely, utterly Australian. Not Rebus at all. Condon's character has such a glorious manner of internal monologue, a true blue aptitude for yarn spinning, and certain attitudes prevalent in the older species of Australian male that I don't love, but definitely understand. In fact, Condon has created a specimen that we all recognise; the old guy that you stand next to at the pub when everyone's slightly pissed and all of a sudden the stories are out and you spend the next week regaling your friends with them. His observations are cunning, his construction beyond reproach. Classic crime fiction with context.

The other thing that gives The Toe Tag Quintet an edge is the stories themselves. While the narrative voice is strong, the other really helpful factor is the actual plots of each of the five stories. There's always something a bit different, that really captures the imagination of the reader, without being over the top. And where so many crime fiction authors like to try and differentiate themselves by being as macabre as possible, that isn't Condon's style. The reason these stories are so unique is that the “twist” isn't the graphic manner in which a murder takes place, or how many weird peccadilloes the serial killer has. These stories are far more like, say, Sherlock Holmes, in the way that they rely on something really interesting happening, not just gore. Which is such a bonus at a time when a lot of crime fiction is just all kill, kill, kill.

Furthermore, some of the stories relate to things that have happened in the others, so while each story is stand alone, I appreciated the last story's connection to the first story. It gave me an adequate sense of closure. The Toe Tag Quintet is utterly readable.

Who is this book for?

The Toe Tag Quintet would make a great gift. Or buy it for yourself. It's easy to read and thoroughly engaging, and is suitable for anyone with a taste for crime fiction. And those with a taste for crime fiction will be pleasantly surprised.

If you like this book, you would also like...

Ian Rankin, obviously. He's the Scottish equivalent. There are others. The thing is, crime fiction is huge. But be selective, because a lot of it is complete shit.

In short

Title: The Toe Tag Quintet
Author: Matthew Condon
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 978 1 74275 669 1
Year published: 2012
Pages: 240
Genre(s): Crime Fiction
Review Type: