For the third time I’ve chosen an Arthur Upfield novel with which to participate in Crimes of the Century, this month requiring a novel originally published in 1954. Once again I chose to listen to a version narrated wonderfully by Peter Hosking (who’s won a narrator of the year award in his time and it’s not hard to hear why).
As with the previous two novels I’ve read it is Upfield’s depiction of the Australian setting that steals the show for me. This novel’s central place is a temporary inland lake: an area that has water for a year or three but which routinely dries up completely when the drought that is inevitable in Australia takes hold. Upfield’s lake is the fictional Lake Otway but it resembles real-life Lake Eyre which is, when it isn’t a dust bowl, is the largest lake in the country. We are introduced to it, and the novel, with these words
Lake Otway was dying. Where it had existed to dance before the sun and be courted by the ravishing moon there would be nothing but drab flats of iron hard clay and then the dead might rise to shout accusations shouted by the encircling sand dunes.
The out-station crowned a low bluff on the southern shore and from it single telephone lines spanned 50 miles of virgin country to base on the great homestead where lived the boss of Porchester station which comprised eight hundred thousand acres and was populated by 60,000 sheep in the care of some 20 wage plugs…
Three years ago the lake was so full of water that it was possible to swim in. And even to drown in, as apparently happened to young stockman Ray Gillen. But now, as police Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte arrives on the scene in the guise of a horsebreaker, the lake is rapidly emptying and Bony soon realises he’s not the only person keen to see what the disappearance of the lake will reveal about the stockman’s death. Gillen was a lottery winner and almost everyone connected to the station seems to think they have some claim on the dead man’s money, wherever it might be.
I’ve thought before that the Upfield plots are the weakest elements of his novels but this one was strong, managing not to get bogged down in too much esoteric detail and maintaining a cracking pace with a load of twists as Bony – and readers – whittle down the greed-driven suspect pool. Whether it be the motley collection of fellow workers or the mother/daughter cook and housemaid team that look after the station everyone seems to have had both motive and opportunity to take advantage of the scenario. The culprit, when eventually unveiled, is among the coldest human beings you’ll encounter fictionally.
Although there is much to anchor this book to place – including a heat which literally has birds dropping from trees in death and the kind of mass rabbit skinning that I can’t imagine happening anywhere else – there is not a great deal to pinpoint the novel in time. Mention is made that Ray Gillen had fought in Korea and there are one or two other indicators that this is one of Upfield’s later novels but it does have a fairly timeless quality. At least it does if you ignore the casual bigotry that pervades all these stories (though here it is women rather than Aboriginal people who cop the brunt of the social stigmatising).
I don’t know that I’d recommend this as the best place to start discovering Arthur Upfield and/or Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte but the book is a solid entry to the series and continues to provide a unique voice in classic crime fiction.
Publisher: This edition Bolinda Audio 1954 [Original Edition, 1954]
Narrator: Peter Hosking
Length: 6 hours, 12 minutes
Format: audio book