The initial idea for THE TOE TAG QUINTET came from author Matthew Condon's editor at The Courier Mail in Brisbane, who wanted a series of novella's in the newspaper over the Christmas / New Year period. Combine that idea with the chance meeting of an old mate, a now retired NSW senior policeman, with a story about walking past an old gangster and you get, with a lot of work in the middle, those five novella's now published in one volume.
Each story is a separate outing for the central protagonist, an unnamed former homicide detective, scouting for, and eventually moving into the Gold Coast retirement home of their dreams, whilst long suffering wife Peg's holds hearth and home together. Starting out in a caravan park whilst Peg's at home in NSW packing up and getting organised for the move, our hero's post-retirement adventures begin with that gangster chance encounter which leads to sinister notes under doors, and an increasing amount of argy-bargy. A pattern that, with adjustment of the details, continues through all five stories.
Each novella does follow a well-trodden path, with something providing any excuse for our hero to dodge the inevitable boredom and relevance deprivation of retirement. Whilst that's particularly obvious as a result of the sequential reading of the novella's, that doesn't mean it's a bad thing. I will admit that I did attempt mitigation by imposing a short delay between each short story, but it was hard not to just keep reading as each outing involved a growing number of bandages on the noggin, an increasingly eccentric cast of opponents, frequent and bizarre near death experiences, and a fair amount of extra bodily damage of varying types / severity. There's also the very nice touch of a bit of philosophising on a rickety old banana lounge, a lot of deep sighing on the part of the seemingly unflappable Peg and an obsession with Kombi's that certainly clears up any lingering doubt about the likelihood of long-term damage from that much noggin bashing.
Set on the Gold Coast and in Brisbane, our hero strides across his canvas in what seems like the perfect uniform for a displaced Southerner - garish Hawaiian shirts and bare, pale, slightly bandy hairy legs below shorts, above slightly scruffy runners, regardless of the venue. He's gloriously unaware of the environs in which he's moving, although the reader is allowed to feel a real connection with the surrounds (granted the beauty of the bell tower and its connections to the action might be lost on someone tied up awaiting that final bell toll..).
Needless to say, we are obviously talking funny. Laugh out loud, frequently hilarious, with a touch of a darker underbelly. Our hero is proud of his hard-nut capacity, his ability to stick with a problem, his beloved vintage Peugeot no matter how much smoke it belches at him. He's also fighting the good fight that will resound markedly with a lot of people of a certain age - "Do not go gentle into that good night" - go kicking, screaming and creating a huge ruckus. Buried within was a message about the way that retirement isn't a comfortable place for a lot of people, and the idea of looking back at a life, family, and relationships with others can be a sobering experience. The novellas might start out with the tidying up of a few gangsters, but they progress. In 'Murder on the Vine' he loses an old friend; in 'Murder, She Tweeted', a long lost contact, compatriot and priest; and finally in 'The Good Murder Guide' he is forced to confront the truth of the murder of his long-term mentor in the NSW Police. All of these experiences, wrapped up in the humour, and lunacy of the now, explore disconnection.
THE TOE TAG QUINTET worked as a comedy, as a selection of short stories and as sheer entertainment. What I didn't expect, probably unfairly, is how much of a thought provoker it's remained.