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.
And 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]
Length: 7 hours, 24 minutes
Format: audio book (mP3)