I enjoy participating in the Past Offences monthly classics challenge to read a book from the nominated year but am rarely able to track down an Australian title in time. Happily for 1936 there was a relatively new narration of Arthur Upfield’s eighth novel* available for my ears.
A reviewer’s caveat: When I first started reading crime fiction seriously as an adult I naturally looked for local authors and it wasn’t long before I found an Arthur Upfield novel but I have to admit I didn’t read many. Partly this is because they are at heart not my thing (my younger self’s crass summing would have been they consist mostly of country people banging on about boring country people stuff). But partly it is also because they make for uncomfortable reading. Although Bony is depicted with as much intelligence and crime-solving skill as any of his worldwide fictional counterparts, some of the attitudes he encounters – the thoughts and feelings expressed by many of the white characters towards any of the books’ Aboriginal characters – are awfully bigoted. My younger self was quite OK with leaving the past behind and believing (hoping?) we’d all moved on a long way from that sort of thing. As well as being a whole lot less naive, older me is able to place the novels in context a bit better and I can deal more philosophically with the wincing that the attitudes induce. Though as there are still a lot of country people banging on about country people stuff the novels are probably never going to count amongst my favourites.
On to the actual review: A small plane is found abandoned in remote Queensland. There is no sign of a pilot but a young woman, who appears to be in a coma, is found within. She is removed and taken to a nearby station (similar to an American ranch) where she is looked after by the owner’s daughter though she fails to recover and hovers near death. Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte, the part Aboriginal, part white policeman known to all as Bony who has developed a reputation for solving mysteries of the outback, is called in on the case and must act with unusual urgency if he is to provide information to aid the young woman’s recovery as well as catch the culprit. The fact that the plane has been all but destroyed by fire before Bony can inspect it adds to the mystery and results in Bony, and two local Aboriginal men, having to use all the tracking skills at their disposal.
Even today the far western Queensland location in which the events of this book take place provides one of the most isolated inhabited spots in the world and WINGS ABOVE THE DIAMANTINA takes full advantage of this unusual setting. Distances are vast, people are of necessity self-reliant and mother nature has a way of letting them know that even if they think they know what they’re doing she can always surprise them. It’s a toss up whether the cloying sand cloud scenario that develops at the novel’s half-way point or the the dramatic rain storm that occurs near the end is the most memorable natural phenomenon but I bet most readers remember at least one long after the novel is over. As far as the book’s setting in time goes there are plenty of things which identify it as being between the wars but in a way the remoteness of the location makes the novel seem less dated than it otherwise might. Even with modern communications and technology remote Australia is still a pretty inhospitable place and it is not too hard to imagine a similar kind of story unfolding today.
Aside from the unusual setting the book is really a classic whodunnit; almost an outback version of the country house mystery (though not all the potential suspects are in the one house they are all within the same few miles). The scene is laid – and possible culprits identified – in the first few chapters and then our protagonist enters proceedings. Bony is introduced when he arrives at the local policeman’s official residence and interrupts the completion of some paperwork. When ready, Sergeant Cox raises his head from his desk to see
“…a man of medium height and build dressed in a light grey tweed. His tie matched his shirt and so did the soft felt hat now resting on the edge of the writing table. The visitor’s face was turned downwards to the busy fingers engaged in making a cigarette and with no little astonishment the sergeant noticed that the man’s hair was fine and straight and black and that his skin was dark brown. And then he was gazing into a pair of bright blue eyes regarding him with a smile”
Almost all of Bony’s first encounters – either in this book or others – involve some form of astonishment on the part of those he is meeting for the first time. I can’t help but wonder if such a man had existed in real life he could have been quite so jovially accepting of other people’s low expectations of him as Bony is depicted as being. For all his unique qualities though Bony is at heart very similar to the other crime solvers that populate this era’s whodunnits – Poirot et al – in that it is his particular intelligence and way of seeing the world that allows him to solve the puzzles others cannot.
For me the plot of this novel was its weakest element. Some of it is annoyingly blokey (there is a thread in which a chap falls in love with the comatose woman which I found truly creepy) and I found my mind wavering a little during some of the minutiae of the investigation. It relied on a visual imagery of relative distances between various locations I couldn’t quite imagine and was heavy on the detail for some things I couldn’t summon much interest in (I wonder if any of the physical versions of the book have a map, it would definitely benefit from one). Perhaps I am truly gruesome enough to require a dead body for my crime reading senses to be completely engaged?
That said I did enjoy the novel much more than I thought I would based on my younger self’s reading of other Upfield books. The author’s genuine affection for his adopted country (he was born in England and moved here at the age of 20) is obvious, though perhaps he owes his his unusually (for the time) enlightened attitude towards our indigenous people to the fact he was not Australian by birth? Regardless of how it was developed it is clear from the warmth and realism with which he depicts them that he has met and grown to really know people like the fictional black fellas he has created here.
The audio format: I know this format isn’t for everyone but if you are a fan I highly recommend local actor Peter Hosking’s narration (of this and the many other Australian titles he has narrated over the years). This is a novel dominated in part by dialogue and Hosking does a superb job with the different cadences and speaking styles of the disparate characters and it really does add another layer of depth to the story.
*There is much variation in online bibliographies of Upfield’s work but this is generally attributable to the fact his books were published at sometimes wildly different times in different countries, and many were published under different names elsewhere. This novel for example is known as WINGS ABOVE THE CLAYPAN or WINGED MYSTERY in the US where it was Upfield’s second published novel in 1937
Publisher: This edition Bolinda Audio , Original edition Angus and Robertson 
Length: 7 hours 48 minutes
Format: Audio download
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