Review: THE BATTLING PROPHET, Arthur Upfield – audio book

Synopsis (Fantastic Fiction)

Detective-Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte is on leave, staying with an old friend near Adelaide. Ben Wickham, a meteorologist whose uncannily accurate weather forecasts had helped farmers all over Australia, lived
nearby. Ben died after a three-week drinking binge and a doctor certified death as due to delirium tremens – but Bony’s host insists that whatever Ben died of it wasn’t alcohol…

From Audible

Ben Wickham, a famous meteorologist whose uncannily accurate forecasts have helped famers and graziers all over Australia, has died after a three-week drinking bout.

The doctor certifies that his death was cause by heart failure due to alcoholic poisoning.
But Ben’s neighbour and drinking partner, John Luton, is convinced his
friends didn’t die from too much gin. He manages to lure Detective-Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte to his riverside cottage near the South Australian coast, on an unofficial visit for a spot of fishing.

Bony, thinking at first he’s on holiday and paying a casual visit, is intrigued and decides to investigate.

My Take

Weather forecasts are extraordinarily important in the driest continent in the world. Farmers and graziers base their activities on them, but if drought is forecast then they will not re-stock their land, nor will they harrow in preparation for seeding. So lots of people stand to lose income if farming activities don’t occur.

Ben Wickham tried to interest the Australian government in purchasing his weather predictions in advance and, when they rejected him, then approached overseas governments. Since Wickham died lots of people, not all Australian in origin, have become very interested in finding his will, and the books in which he wrote his predictions for future weather. They are all convinced that his best mate John Luton is hiding something. After Luton takes a beating from some outsider Bony realises that some major steps have to be taken. But someone higher up in government wants Bony off the scene and he is peremptorily recalled Queensland, and even escorted to the South Australian border.

A story with quite a bit of outback humour as well as some serious thought. There are some very quirky characters and the author has tried give us some idea of their colloquial language.

Of particular interest to me is that so many of the Bony stories have a link to South Australia. This one appears to be set somewhere near the River Murray. Ironically the year of publication, 1956, is also the year of the flooding of the Murray, in contrast with the drought conditions of the novel.My rating: 4.4

I’ve also read
DEATH OF A SWAGMAN
4.4, THE BARRAKEE MYSTERY
4.0, A MAN OF TWO TRIBES 

Review: MAN OF TWO TRIBES, Arthur Upfield – audio book

Synopsis (Fantastic Fiction)

With two camels and a dog, Detective-Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte sets off across southern Australia’s Nullarbor Plain in search of a missing
woman. He finds much more than he bargained for. Set in some of the most mysterious and unforgiving territory in the world – the Australian
desert – Man of Two Tribes is vintage Upfield.

From Audible:

Myra Thomas, accused of murdering her philandering husband, is foundnot guilty by a sympathetic jury. But while travelling from Adelaide toPerth on the Transcontinental Railway express, she mysteriously disappears during the overnight journey across the vast, featureless desert.
Detective-Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte takes the case and
sets off to search for her over the flat wasteland of the Nullabor
Plain. At first it seems that the harsh environment will give him no clues, but Bony soon finds more than he bargained for? landing himself in a bigger mystery, and a fight for survival…

My TakeThe Woomera Rocket Range, a collaborative effort between a number of International groups including the British and Australia, began immediately after World War II in 1946, with a joint project running until 1960. It is located in north-west South Australia, about 500 km north west of Adelaide. British nuclear tests at Maralinga, a series of seven nuclear tests were conducted within the Woomera area between 1955 and 1963. More recently, the Woomera Immigration Reception and Processing Centre, a detention centre,  opened nearby in 1999 and operated until 2003.

The focus in the opening pages of the story is a woman, recently acquitted of murder, who has disappeared without trace from the East-West railway travelling from Adelaide to Western Australia. There is some indication that she may have connections with international espionage and Bony is sent out on an undercover mission to see if he can locate her.

There are various Aboriginal legends associated with the Australian outback but here Upfield tells one about a monster, maybe a version of the Rainbow Snake, supposedly occupying the underground limestone caverns of the Nullarbor Plain which the train line traverses. This has the effect of both deterring aboriginal trackers from looking too closely for the missing woman, and also provides an explanation of any strange noises heard at night.

Bony of course is the “man of two tribes”, being a half-caste aborigine, but his Queensland tribe has little in common with the Aboriginal people living on the Nullarbor, apart from the markings on his body that show he is a warrior of some note. At the same time he is a very articulate person, highly qualified with a university degree, and a reputation for never failing to successfully conclude a case.

An interesting story but I did feel that it stretched the bounds of credibility. Basing the story around the Nullarbor Plain and Woomera does show how in touch with current events Upfield was. At the time of publication 1956, 8 years before his death, he was 66 years old and there would be another 8 Bony novels.

My rating: 4.0

I’ve also read
DEATH OF A SWAGMAN
4.4, THE BARRAKEE MYSTERY

Review: COMFORT ZONE by Lindsay Tanner

ComfortZoneTannerThese days I can count on one hand the number of politicians of any political persuasion I admire but former federal Finance Minister and ALP stalwart Lindsay Tanner makes the cut. Which explains why I was prompted to select his first foray into fiction writing for my book club to read this month. Something I now feel the urge to apologise for. I thought I didn’t have any expectations of the book because I didn’t know anything of the story before selecting it but realise now I had expectations of Tanner. He was a thoughtful politician and has demonstrated a capacity for nuanced communication of difficult issues in his public life and I anticipated that skill would be evident in his fiction writing. Alas…

Set in Melbourne with much of the action taking place within the boundaries of the inner city electorate Tanner served for seven years, COMFORT ZONE is primarily the story of Jack Van Duyn. Jack is a loser. If you forget for a moment that Jack is a loser you will be reminded. Either he will say it himself, someone will say it of him or his many failings will be repeated. I ran out of sticky notes in identifying all the times the book mentions Jack’s schmuck status but here are a few

Jack Van Duyn didn’t exactly cut an impressive figure. He was quite tall, but a gently protruding potbelly was accentuated by Australia’s least imposing set of shoulders.

and

Underneath Jack’s crusty exterior lay a dank, stagnant pool of loneliness that was slowly consuming him.

and

Jack’s world was full of pessimism, low expectations and failure. Missing out was normal. People like him were always at the end of the queue.

I won’t bore you with the dozens more similar quotes I could include. I know I was meant to be enchanted by the fact that over the course of the book Jack confounds his loser status by behaving against type but this transformation would have been a lot more intriguing if any level of subtlety had been applied to it.

Jack is a cabbie. One day as he is about to pick up a fare he notices two young African boys being assaulted by young men. On his own Jack would probably have done nothing but his would-be-passenger urges Jack to join him in rescuing the boys. The situation is resolved between our two heroes and a couple of police constables and that should have been the end of it. But Jack becomes smitten with the boys’ mother, single Somali mum Farhia Mohammed, and when he finds a book Farhia must have dropped seizes the opportunity to reconnect with her. Jack subsequently becomes involved in his passenger’s botched drug deal, a fight within the Somali community and soon has both ASIO and mysterious drug kingpins on his tail.

Alas that summary makes the story sound more interesting than it actually was. Although it’s a quick and short read at 240 pages it doesn’t reach any dramatic or comedic heights, is entirely predictable and almost entirely unbelievable. That wouldn’t have mattered quite so much if the attendant social commentary had been engaging but that too was laid on with an over-sized trowel rather than the artist’s brush I might have hoped for. To save you the trouble of finding our for yourself what it boils down to is this: people, even people who are different from us, are generally OK if you take the time to get to know them.

Groan.

I was going to say that if COMFORT ZONE had been written by someone else my reaction to it might have been different as I wouldn’t have had prior expectations of its author. But I am pretty confident the book would never have been published without ‘former federal government minister’ attached to the author’s name. So I think I was justified in having an expectation that the book would use Tanner’s relatively rare experiences to offer genuine insight into the complexities of modern inner city life rather than the thinly veiled lament about Green voters spoiling a once wondrous place (for non Australians following along Tanner’s former seat has been in the hands of the Australian Greens since 2010). When combined with overly stereotypical characterisations and some truly clunky dialogue I really could give a one word review: disappointing.

It seems my co-host here at Fair Dinkum Crime and fellow book club member liked the book more than I did so perhaps I won’t have to grovel too much about my choice

Publisher: Scribe [2016]
ISBN: 9781925321029
Length: 240 pages
Format: paperback

Review: AN ISOLATED INCIDENT by Emily Maguire

AnIsolatedIncidentMaguireIf I tell you AN ISOLATED INCIDENT is about the death of a beautiful young, female aged care worker in a small country town you’ll think you know at least a little about where the book will go. But you don’t. the book subverts just about every stereotype and trope of the genre. Brilliantly.

What I found most noticeable about AN ISOLATED INCIDENT is what isn’t there.

Firstly the killer is not present at all in this book. I’m not talking about whether the identity of the killer is or isn’t revealed but the book is not about that person. That bloke (because let’s be frank when a young woman is brutally murdered the odds are astronomically high that her killer will be male) doesn’t get italicised passages from his point of view or consideration of his motivations. Or Excuses. The why of the crime is present only in the subtext: men kill women, all too bloody frequently, because they can.

Another traditional element missing from the book is the police perspective. Of course there are police officers and various plot points in which one or more of them is central but we do not spend any time seeing things from their point of view and we do not know if any of them are haunted by the death and the subsequent investigation. This is not their story either.

In a way the book isn’t even about Bella Michaels – the young woman who has been murdered.

Instead the book is about the aftermath of her death, primarily about the people who are affected by it. The most important of these people is Bella’s older sister Chris who experiences an almost unsurvivable grief. Not ‘just’ the grief that comes with a loved one dying horrifically and much, much too early. But the dual complications that come with the knowledge that someone caused that death and is still going about their lives and that because Bella’s death is so public other people – most of whom didn’t even know Bella – feel some kind of ownership of her. And her death. Chris’ descent into a form of madness as she grasps the enormity of her new reality is one of the most compelling characterisations I have ever read. As a divorced barmaid and amateur prostitute Chris is an atypical heroine but I defy even the most uncharitable of readers not to feel entirely sympathetic towards her.

One of the people who never knew Bella but who is affected by her death is May Norman. Suffering an ignoble relationship breakup she heads to the fictional town of Strathdee – ostensibly half-way between Sydney and Melbourne – to put some distance between herself and her lover as well as to take on her first big crime reporting assignment. It’s what she’s always wanted. Isn’t it? Initially May is a typically dogged yet somewhat insensitive journalist but finds herself increasingly invested in ensuring that the truth of Bella’s life and the impact of her death on those who loved her is meaningfully presented to the world.

Maguire lets Chris narrate most of this story, honestly and directly (she is even allowed to break the literary equivalent of the fourth wall occasionally) which helps the reader to develop a real understanding of all that Chris is going through. Though there is humour too as evidenced by Chris’ physical description of her sister

Bella was, if I’m being honest, Strathdee-pretty. I was always telling her she could be a model if she wanted, and I still think that was true, but it’d modelling in the Kmart catalogue not Vogue or anything. I’m not putting her down. Like I said, she was the most beautiful thing anyone around here had ever seen in the flesh, but she was five foot nothing in high heels and had a size 10 arse on a size 6 body.

But it is through Chris’ response to the public appropriation of Bella’s death that we start to really see how the situation is impacting on Chris. When there is a ‘march for Bella’ in Sydney – some six hours drive away from where she lived and died – Chris is angry

…Look, for the record I believe they were sad and scared. But that march was about them, for them. That’s fine. Whatever gets you through this life. But they shouldn’t have pretended it was for Bella. How could it have been? They had no memories of her to celebrate, no way of just what it was the world lost when she died. And the coverage that thing got, well, it made people – all the goddam compassionate, sad people out there – feel like something had been done, some kind of justice. It made a lot of those nice ladies and men marching through Sydney feel better about what had happened and that was the opposite of what was needed. We needed rage and heartbreak, we needed the whole country to be unable to sleep, to eat, to move on with their lives until the men who did this were found. Instead we got warm feelings about community and sweet quotes about paying tribute. They got peace and we – Bella and me – got jack-fucking-shit.

There is more. Much more about the way in which these kinds of deaths are reported by the media and picked over by the rest of us.

Another subversion of the genre is in the book’s approach to violence. We know Bella’s death was violent but whatever brutalities she endured are not recounted. Chris knows what they are – they infuse her thoughts – but she doesn’t pass them on. And even when she looks at leaked photographs of Bella’s body posted online we don’t learn the details from May either. Chris knows it’s what people want – details and the gorier the better – but Maguire is determined we won’t have them.

I’ve only scratched the surface of AN ISOLATED INCIDENT both in this review and in my own thinking. I suppose that is as it should be given the book subverts just about every aspect of the crime genre while forcing readers to consider their own responses to real world incidents of the type it depicts. Being confronted in this way should not be easily forgotten. So if you like your reading thought-provoking and don’t mind keeping company with fictional people long after you’ve closed the back cover of their stories then I highly recommend AN ISOLATED INCIDENT.


AWW2016This is the 8th book I’ve read and reviewed for the fifth Australian Women Writers Challenge. For more information about the challange check out my challenge progress, sign up yourself or browse the Challenge’s database of reviews.


Publisher: Pan Macmillan [2016]
ISBN: 9781743538579
Length: 343 pages
Format: paperback

Review: THE LAKE HOUSE, Kate Morton

  • format: Kindle (Amazon)
  • File Size: 1848 KB
  • Print Length: 606 pages
  • Publisher: Allen & Unwin (November 1, 2015)
  • Publication Date: October 21, 2015
  • Sold by: Amazon Digital Services LLC
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B00X74TJ4Y

Synopsis  (Amazon)

A missing child

June 1933, and the Edevane family’s country
house, Loeanneth, is polished and gleaming, ready for the much-anticipated Midsummer Eve party. Alice Edevane, sixteen years old
and a budding writer, is especially excited. Not only has she worked out the perfect twist for her novel, she’s also fallen helplessly in love with someone she shouldn’t have. But by the time midnight strikes and fireworks light up the night skies, the Edevane family will have suffered a loss so great that they leave Loeanneth forever.

An abandoned house

Seventy years later, after a particularly troubling case, Sadie Sparrow is sent on an enforced break from her job with the Metropolitan Police. She retreats to her beloved grandfather’s cottage in Cornwall but soon finds herself at a loose end. Until one day, Sadie stumbles upon an abandoned house surrounded by overgrown gardens and dense woods, and learns the story of a baby boy who disappeared without a trace.

An unsolved mystery

Meanwhile, in the attic writing room of her elegant Hampstead home, the formidable
Alice Edevane, now an old lady, leads a life as neatly plotted as the bestselling detective novels she writes. Until a young police detective starts asking questions about her family’s past, seeking to resurrect the complex tangle of secrets Alice has spent her life trying to escape.

My take

Where do I begin? I suspect this will remain at the top of my “best for 2016” list for a very long time.

The author cleverly weaves a number of strands of mystery together. It is not just what happened on Midsummer’s Eve at the Edevane’s country house, Leoanneth in 1933, but what actually happened to Alice Edevane’s father in World War One to give him recurrent nightmares and to make him a man who is dangerous to his own children. And then there is what Sadie Sparrow actually did to cause her to be sent on an enforced holiday.

The stories are told so cleverly that you feel there is always something new to learn. The characters are so well drawn but even then some are wrapped in mystery.  There are red herrings galore and just when you think you have it all worked out you realise there is something else to consider.

A terrific read!

My rating: 5.0

I’ve also read THE FORGOTTEN GARDEN

Review: COMFORT ZONE, Lindsay Tanner

  • format: Kindle (Amazon)
  • File Size: 701 KB
  • Print Length: 213 pages
  • Publisher: Scribe (January 27, 2016)
  • Publication Date: January 27, 2016
  • Sold by: Amazon Digital Services LLC
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B019MH8OKE

Synopsis  (Amazon)

An astute novel about Australian racism — and about humanity prevailing over entrenched prejudice.
Jack Van Duyn is stuck in his comfort zone. A pot-bellied, round-shouldered cabbie in his mid-fifties, Jack lives alone, has few friends, and gets very little out of life. He has a negative opinion of most other people — especially refugees, bankers, politicians, and welfare bludgers.Jack doesn’t know it, but his life is about to be turned upside down. A minor altercation in a kids’ playground at an inner-city high-rise estate catapults Jack into a whirlpool of drug-dealing, ASIO intrigue, international piracy, and criminal violence. And he can’t escape, because he doesn’t want to: he’s fallen in love with the beautiful Somali single mum who’s at the centre of it all.

The ensuing turmoil propels Jack out of his comfort zone, forcing him to confront
some unpleasant truths about himself. After decades in the doldrums, can he rise to the challenge when the heat’s on?

Drawing on his many years of experience as a politician at the centre of bitter debates
about refugees and multiculturalism, Lindsay Tanner explores the emotional landscape on which these issues are played out. As we follow Jack’s hair-raising journey from crisis to crisis, a powerful plea for tolerance and understanding unfolds — directed at both sides of
Australia’s great cultural divide.

My take

What this novel points out very clearly is how very rarely most of us do things outside our comfort zone. Actually our hero Jack Van Duyn wouldn’t have got outside his if it hadn’t been for his passenger who really dragged him into it. They intervened when some older kids were attacking some young Somali children in a playground. Jack finds himself attracted to the boy’s mother and going out of his way to help her. But that lands him in a heap of trouble.

There is a comic vein to this novel but at the same time a serious look at some contemporary Australian social issues. That is where the author’s knowledge and awareness stand him in good stead.
Jack finds himself hunted by ASIO who say he is consorting with a possible terrorist, as well as being potentially involved in drug running. He is very attracted to the young Somali widow and finds himself going out of his way to help her. By the end of the novel he recognises that his life has been changed.
Jack also knows some interesting “fixers” who help solve his problems. To use a common idiom, Jack isn’t the sharpest knife in the box, but he is a nice man, even if he is a bit of a slob. I found his character growing and my sympathy for him expanding as the novel developed.
I am not sure the novel is really crime fiction, but maybe it is on the outer edges of the genre – crimes are certainly committed. Part of the story is about how our refugee populations bring with them problems that can’t simply be solved by the act of coming to a new country.A pretty quick and interesting read.

My rating: 4.2About the author
Lindsay Tanner was the minister for finance and deregulation in the Rudd-Gillard governments and held the seat of Melbourne for the ALP from 1993 to 2010. Having retired from politics at the 2010 federal election, he is now special adviser to Lazard Australia, and is a vice-chancellor’s fellow and adjunct professor at Victoria University. Mr Tanner is the author of several previous books, including Politics with Purpose (2012) and Sideshow (2011), also published by Scribe.

Review: RUNNING AGAINST THE TIDE by Amanda Ortlepp

RunningAgainstTheTiedOrtleppAlthough set in a fictitious town Amanda Ortlepp’s RUNNING AGAINST THE TIDE takes place in a very recognisable rural South Australia. The small Eyre Peninsula town of Mallee Bay is dominated by the oyster farming industry, local tourism and a sense of community (or the horror of everyone knowing everyone else’s business if you’re reading the book with my a city person’s eyes). Remembering the place fondly from her childhood holidays Erin Travers relocates there with her sons Mike and Ryan when her Sydney life collapses. Mike soon has a job with a neighbour’s oyster farming business and Erin starts to set down new roots with a win in the local art competition and a love interest but youngest son Ryan struggles to fit in at all. When increasingly worrying things start to go wrong for the Travers’ and others in the town suspicions fall easily. But not everybody is what they seem to be.

I am a city girl through and through and would need motivation along the lines of an impending annihilation of all large metropolises to force a move to somewhere as remote as Mallee Bay so could easily have found this book a struggle. Instead though I was quite intrigued by Erin’s story and the way Ortlepp tells it. What went wrong with her marriage? Why take the boys so far from their father? How much does everyone in her life know about all this? Does the town’s resident Lothario have sinister intent with respect to Erin? Is she seeing dead people? And what about the boys? Is each as he appears is one or other of them hiding secrets? Ortlepp does a great job of making the reader question or suspect everything and everyone in the tradition of the best suspense novels.

The setting is an evocative and authentic one. I spent my share of childhood holidays in a town called Coffin Bay which is on the same peninsula as Ortlepp’s fictional creation and I recognised many of the qualities she depicts. We get a sense of the town’s geography, including its heavy reliance on the sea for what it contributes to the local economy, and the people who make up the community. There are several nicely drawn characters who collectively remind us all that we should not rush to judgement based on first impressions. Of course this is in part to keep readers guessing about who to trust but there’s some natural and engaging character development too.

Strictly speaking RUNNING AGAINST THE TIDE is a suspense novel rather than pure crime fiction but it is very readable and does set the heart beating quickly when things get dangerous for multiple characters. I always know I am completely hooked when I have an internal struggle between wanting to read to the end yet wanting to put the book down in case something horrid happens to someone I have come to care about. I suppose it’s the literary equivalent of watching a thrilling movie with your hands partly covering your eyes and it’s a great feeling.


AWW2016This is the 7th book I’ve read and reviewed for the fifth Australian Women Writers Challenge. For more information about the challenge check out my challenge progress, sign up yourself or browse the Challenge’s database of reviews.


Publisher: Simon & Schuster [2016]
ISBN: 9781925030631
Length: 359 pages
Format: paperback

Review: ALL THESE PERFECT STRANGERS by Aoife Clifford

AllThesePerfectStrangers27050_fALL THESE PERFECT STRANGERS is Pen Shepherd’s story. Or stories. She’s the ultimate in unreliable narrators is Pen and so the narrative has an appropriately elastic relationship with truthiness. Pen is young – 18 or 19 for the main narrative – and is primarily telling the stories of the deaths which occurred during her first few months as a law student. Pen is only able to attend the University because she is a survivor (of what we don’t know at the outset) and secured a scholarship based at least in part on having survived whatever it is. She tells that story too eventually. If that is not enough mystery for you we don’t even know where in Australia Pen is – she comes from ‘a small town’ and goes to University in ‘a city’.

I struggled to really engage with this book. I very much wanted to but couldn’t. Part of the problem was one of it failing to manage my expectations. Within the first half-dozen pages I was told that Pen has led a dramatic life, especially for one so young. The fact (if not the details) of a home town mystery that has made everyone hate her and multiple deaths at university are all announced up front, demanding attention. So I wanted to start learning about these events straight away. I did not want to have small details parceled out to me as you might lollies to a toddler. Especially as the parceling out came amidst a swag of ‘young people getting drunk and being horrible to each other’ narrative that, frankly, bored me. This is the part that I’m prepared to accept is my problem: the drunken, self-absorbed goings-on of teens didn’t interest me when I was 19 myself and it holds even less appeal 30 years later. I am too old for this book?

I think perhaps other people appreciate the use of unreliable narrators more than I do too. The issue is not that I didn’t like Pen (though I didn’t) but that I had no investment in her and she is the book. Whether she turned out to be a killer or a victim, whether she lived or died. whether she lied or told the truth, whether she was found out or got away with whatever it was she had done…I couldn’t seem to care. Mostly because I didn’t feel like we got much of a glimpse into why Pen was the way she was. There are hints that there is something dark and traumatic in her background – even before the thing that occurred in her home town that made everybody hate her – but these aren’t fleshed out in any meaningful way. Without something to explain Pen’s actions and behaviour she’s just…not interesting.

I can appreciate that the writing is good and Clifford has pulled together a complicated structure that mixes the present and past with genuine skill that many authors with far more output under their belts would be jealous of. But a book that chooses the first person voice and an unreliable one at that has to ensure that voice connects with the reader in some way and that just didn’t happen for me on this occasion. I am, as is often the case, a minority voice and you are sure to find plenty of rave reviews like this one if you are keen to find a different opinion about this debut novel.


AWW2016This is the 6th book I’ve read and reviewed for the fifth Australian Women Writers Challenge. For more information about the challenge check out my challenge progress, sign up yourself or browse the Challenge’s database of reviews.


Publisher: Simon & Schuster [2016]
ISBN: 9781925310726
Length: 392 pages
Format: paperback

Review: THE BARRAKEE MYSTERY, Arthur Upfield – audio book

  • First published in 1929, #1 in the Napoleon Bonaparte titles
  • Available from Audible
  • Narrated by: Peter Hosking
  • Length: 8 hrs and 16 mins 

    Unabridged Audiobook

Synopsis (Audible)

Why was the redoubtable King Henry, an aborigine from Western Australia, killed during a thunderstorm in New  South Wales? What was the feud that led to murder after nineteen long years had passed? And who was the woman who saw the murder and kept silent?This first story of Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte, the half-aborigine detective, takes him to a sheep station in the Darling River bush country where he encounters those problems he understands so well…  mixed blood and divided loyalties.

PLEASE NOTE: Part of the appeal of Arthur Upfield’s stories lies in their authentic portrayal of many aspects of outback Australian life in the 1930s and through into the 1950s. These books reflect and depict the attitudes and ways of speech of that era particularly with regard to Aborigines and to women.
In reproducing this book the publisher does not endorse the attitudes or opinions they express.

©1965 First published 1929 by Hutchinson and Company Ltd. © Bonaparte Holdings Pty Ltd, 1965. (P)2015 Bolinda Publishing Pty Ltd

My Take

It would be easy to focus in a review of  THE BARRAKEE MYSTERY on the politically incorrect (by today’s standards anyway) attitudes and terminology. But as the publisher says, they reflected the attitudes of the times.

Peter Hosking does a wonderful job of the narration and that allowed me to reflect on other things: the descriptions of the outback and the toughness required of those who chose to live there. I was struck also by how the novel reflected Australia’s bush heritage.

Born in England in 1890, Upfield moved to Australia in 1911 and fought with the Australian military during the First World War. Following his war service, he travelled extensively throughout Australia, obtaining a knowledge of Australian Aboriginal culture that he would later use in his written works. In addition to writing detective fiction, Upfield was a member of the Australian Geological Society and was involved in numerous scientific expeditions. (Wikipedia)

The bush heritage that I am reminded of were the works of Banjo Paterson and particularly the stories of Henry Lawson, even SUCH IS LIFE by Joseph Furphy.  In later novels Upfield wasn’t as expansive in his descriptions of the country, and focussed more on detective/crime elements, but there are a lot of mini-stories in THE BARRAKEE MYSTERY. There is a mystery element in the novel too, well structured, but not really all that difficult to solve.

Bony reminds me a little of Hercules Poirot: not only does he believe in his own superior detection skills, but he also dispenses his own form of justice.My rating: 4.4

I’ve also reviewed DEATH OF A SWAGMAN

Review: DEATH OF A SWAGMAN by Arthur Upfield

If my future self had been able to travel back in time and tell twenty-something Bernadette that I/she would one day fall back on Arthur Upfield as a reliably decent read I/she would have laughed in my/her face. I used to pontificate – as only a twenty-something who believes they’re the first to uncover the political and social inadequacies of earlier generations can do – that Upfield’s work should be consigned to history for its confrontingly wrong-headed depictions of race relations in Australia. But as a regular participant in the Crimes of the Century challenge, which requires the reading of a book published in the nominated year, I’ve had a rough couple of months (with my inaugural and lacklustre reading of a Dorothy L Sayers novel then the truly, deeply awful I, THE JURY by Mickey Spillane) and this month I wanted to at least enjoy the story. Older (much, much older) Bernadette has discovered that not everything is as black and white as my/her younger self believed and that Upfield still has something to offer. Further, in the context of wondering when we will ever get our indigenous relations up to scratch, it doesn’t hurt to be reminded how far we have come.

DeathOfASwagmanAudioAnd so my 1945 book is DEATH OF A SWAGMAN: Upfield’s ninth novel to feature half Aboriginal, half European police inspector Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte. In this installment Bony has inveigled himself into the investigation of a death in rural New South Wales after having recognised a possible clue in a photo of the death scene. It is nearly two months since the stockman, George Kendall, was found dead but even so Bony slides into the case in a sideways move rather than hurrying to sort things out. He arrives in town with no fanfare and in something of a disguise so that he can get himself arrested and have an excuse to stay in town to question and observe the locals without them being wary of his official, and somewhat famous, status.

As always, Upfield depicts his chosen setting with rich imagery. On this occasion we travel to a small town in the south west part of New South Wales where the most notable natural feature is the nearby Walls of China, ancient, wind-formed sand dunes that stand out due to both their age and height in the otherwise flat landscape. The place where the body was discovered is described forcefully

…the hut faced toward the east across three miles of open country falling gently to the foot of the Walls of China. Here and there were giant red claypans, hard as cement and separated by narrow ridges of loose sand. Old man saltbush were scattered about the scene, and widely spaced water gutters, now dry, zigzagged slightly to the northeast to join a dry creek bordered by box trees.

Even if I hadn’t been there on what seemed like a fairly dull school trip (there’s young Bernadette getting it wrong again) I would be able to picture the place.

Less usually this book also has some quite deep character development and displays a lot less of the casual bigotry towards Bony than is standard for the series. Whether they know him to be a policeman or believe him to be a vaguely shady stockman (having been arrested after all) Bony is treated with warmth by most of the townsfolk. Of course that’s as it should be but this is 1945 and it isn’t always the case for Bony. Just as he is accepted by the townsfolk he quickly grows to like them too, especially the young daughter of the town’s police Sergeant. Rose Marie is a clever and engaging little girl and her conversations with Bony are a highlight of the novel.

The story is more standard for the series in that it relies heavily on Bony’s skills as a bush tracker as well as his deductive reasoning to move things along. It starts out fairly slowly but its ending is dramatic as the novel’s cutest character is in peril which worries Bony and the reader in equal measure. The resolution is well enough reasoned but is nothing short of peculiar, at least with respect to the motive it supplies for the killer, and I think falls into the “each whodunit has to have a more bizarre puzzle than the last” trap.

One of the things that identifies DEATH OF A SWAGMAN as belonging at least to a different era if not the actual year 1945 is the amount of smoking that takes place. Eh gads it’s continuous!. But one thing I noticed by its absence was any discussion of the war. If there were any returned soldiers or war widows or elements of that nature mention must have been rapid because they entirely passed me by which does strike me as unusual for a book published in 1945. Or perhaps it is only distance that has assigned that period only one significant event?

Overall though I found this a thoroughly entertaining read and I’d recommend it as a great introduction to the Bony series if you’ve never tried it before. If you happen to be a fan of audio books the narration by local actor Peter Hosking is a delight: really bringing to life Upfield’s authentic contemporary dialogue.


Publisher: Bolinda audio 2009 [originally published in the US 1945, UK 1946 and Australia 1947]
ASIN: B002UZNIAW
Length: 7 hours, 24 minutes
Format: audio book (mP3)