Review: THE WILL OF THE TRIBE by Arthur Upfield

Canadian crime fiction fan and blogger Bill Selnes from Mysteries and More from Saskatchewan has been reading more Aussie crime fiction and has kindly allowed us to re-post his review here. It is interesting, and a little sad, to see that a book 50 years old is, in many ways, still relevant in that it explores the inequalities in the treatment of indigeneous Australians.

Napoleon “Bony” Bonaparte is in the remote reaches of northwest Australia in the vicinity of the Kimberley Mountains. He has been called to investigate the death of an unidentified white man found in the centre of Lucifer’s Couch, a crater formed from a meteorite crashing into the earth.

Unlike other Bony investigations the authorities are less interested in finding the killer than in determining how this man reached the area unnoticed. Thus the book is a most unusual twist on the locked room mystery. Here the body is found in the middle of a room consisting of thousands of square miles of territory. How did he get there? He had to travel hundreds of miles to reach the crater. A horse or a vehicle would have drawn attention. A plane would have had to fly from an airport. It is impossible to see a white man travelling the vast spaces on foot without ample supplies.

Bony settles in at the Deep Creek cattle station with Kurt and Rose Brentner and their two daughters, Hilda and Rosie. Among those working at the station are Tessa and Captain, members of the local aborigine tribe who have been educated and given responsible positions at the station.

The book, one of the last Bony books, is the most challenging of the Bony mysteries I have read because of its treatment of the Aboriginal characters.The white characters definitely consider themselves superior. While no longer acceptable by the early 1960’s, the book makes clear it was not long before that time that it was acceptable for a white man to thrash an aborigine he considered disobedient.

The attitudes, particularly of the white people, felt accurate to me. I can well remember as a child in Canada 50 years ago the way Indian people were generally looked down upon by white society.

The aborigines of the area are divided into three groups. The wild blacks are some distance away in the desert. The station blacks are dependent on the station while living in their own camp. The educated aborigines, Tessa and the Captain, live at the station.
It is an era of transition. The lifestyle of the wild blacks is gradually being eroded. Official Australia would like to see the aborigines assimilated into the white population. The same approach was in place in Canada at that time. For decades it was our Federal Government’s policy to assimilate the Indian peoples of Canada with white Canadians.

Yet the book is far subtler than the surface portrayal of white discrimination and condescension. Bony, half white and half aborigine, has strong opinions on such matters as inter-racial marriage, aborigine connections with tribe and education of aborigines. How should the aborigines adjust to the vast white population that has taken over their continent? Should they assimilate? Should they seek to remain distinct? I found myself thinking more about the questions of culture and race than the mystery.

While I became involved in the societal issues raised the book is focused on solving a “locked room” mystery. For the vast open spaces needed to create the “locked room” it could only have been set in Australia or Canada or Russia or Antarctica.

The book is tied to the countryside and the people of Australia. Bony makes good use of his tracking skill and ability to question white and aborigine witnesses.

It is a good mystery which left me thinking not only about the treatment of indigenous people 50 years ago but how the same issues are being addressed today.

At Bill’s original review you’ll find some photos of the remote area in which the book is set.


4 thoughts on “Review: THE WILL OF THE TRIBE by Arthur Upfield

  1. This sounds really interested and I’m always interested in reading about the treatment of Indigenous peoples around the world. I think the issue of choosing assimilation or separation, i.e., any decision has to be made by the Ingenous peoples, who may differ on their goals or strategies in trying to achieve equality and an end to discrimination against them. This is a centuries-old question going back to the beginnings of colonialism. But it’s one that can only be answered by their communities.
    I’m curious about the term “wild Blacks.” If that term were used in the U.S. press, there would be denunciations, picket lines and more. Is that how this book discusses Indigenous people who live outside of cities and towns, in their own regions?


    • Kathy the term ‘wild blacks’ would certainly not be used today – we would discuss people from remote communities or people living traditional lifestyles. But this book was first published in 1962 when that term would still have been in reasonably wide use to denote Aboriginal people living traditionally as opposed to those who had moved to stations, towns or cities cities.

      When I read Bill’s review I must admit I baulked at the term but I’m one of those people who think that we shouldn’t gloss over terminology from the past – if that’s what was used at the time then so be it. If we hide this stuff from ourselves then I think we’re in danger of forgetting that we haven’t always been as enlightened as we are and are more likely to take backward steps.

      If I’d removed that term from the review then I’d have felt obliged to remove the word tribe too as that is not in current use either – it’s not offensive so much as inaccurate as Aboriginal society is not structured as distinctly as the notion of tribes would suggest. Today we tend to use words like people or group. For example at official ceremonies now it is common practice to acknowledge the traditional inhabitants of the area in which the ceremony is taking place – where I live that is the Kuarna (pronounced Garna) people but I’m not sure which people are the traditional owners of the area this particular book is set as there are several hundred group names and I only know the ones local to me.


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