Review: DEATH OF A LAKE by Arthur Upfield

DeathOfALakeUpfieldAudioFor 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
ASIN: B01GKAJMCA
Length: 6 hours, 12 minutes
Format: audio book

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: 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)

Review: WINGS ABOVE THE DIAMANTINA by Arthur Upfield

WingsAboveTheDiamantinaUpfieldI 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.

The Diamantina River today

The Diamantina River today

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 [2013], Original edition Angus and Robertson [1936]
ASIN: B00BLNP5U0
Length: 7 hours 48 minutes
Format: Audio download
Creative Commons Licence
This work by http://fairdinkumcrime.com is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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.

Review: THE BUSHMAN WHO CAME BACK by Arthur Upfield

This review was originally posted to Mysteries and More from Saskatchewan and is re-published here with the permission of Bill Selnes


Napoleon “Bony” Bonaparte is called to the Lake Eyre region of northern South Australia about 700 km north of Adelaide. At the remote Mount Eden homestead Mrs. Bell, cook and housekeeper, has been murdered and her 7 year old daughter, Linda, has been abducted.

All attention has been focused on finding Ole Fren Yorky an itinerant stockman with a great fondness for strong liquor whose tracks were found leading away from the yardsite. Bony is suspicious when Aboriginal trackers cannot find where Yorky has gone. How do a man and a child disappear even in a vast wilderness? The limited locations of water in the desert are well known.

To find out what has happened Bony pursues information with the local group of aborigines headed by the blind Canute. There are fascinating descriptions of Aboriginal gatherings and storytelling.

Bony, half Aboriginal, is drawn into the local Aboriginal relationships. The aged Canute owns Meena, a young woman, promised to him by her mother, Sarah, when Meena was a baby. Meena and Charlie, a young member of the group, are interested in each other but denied a relationship because Meena is already owned.

Bony sets out on a personal inspection of Yorky’s fence line inspection route along Lake Eyre. Riding a horse he proceeds from camp to camp, sometimes days apart, where Yorky has stashes of food. It is a time when distance was measured by how far a horse could travel during a day.

Lake Eyre is a grim forbidding expanse of mud surviving even a multi-year drought.

Bony demonstrates his accomplished tracking skills though he acknowledges the far greater skills of the aborigines. Bony’s keen skills at observation and interpretation are far different from modern police who rely heavily on forensic equipment and tests. In his ability to obtain information from scrutiny Bony reminds me of Sherlock Holmes.

Once again Bony must deal with both blackfellow law and whitefellow law.

The language is occasionally patronizing of the Aboriginal people. The language would be unacceptable in current literature. Lacking any personal knowledge of Australia of the 1950’s it does remind me of the actual language and attitudes of Canadians toward Canadian Indians when I was a young boy.

While the language is not politically correct there is more respect for Aboriginal people and the culture than condescension.

Anthony Boucher in a 1957 review of the book in the New York Times said:

“The complex half-caste Bony is, I think, my favorite fictional detective of the past twenty years; and he’s never appeared in a novel richer in adventure, suspense, local color, folklore and absorbingly studied contrasts in cultures”.

I enjoyed again how the mystery was a part of the culture and the land and the era in which it was set. It is an Australian story. Each time I read a Bony book I learn more about rural Australia of generations past. It was shortlisted for the 1958 Edgars.


This book was originally published in 1957 and in the UK was published as BONY BUYS A WOMAN

CAKE IN THE HAT BOX, Arthur Upfield

This review was first posted on Mysteries and More from Saskatchewan and is reproduced here with kind permission from blogger Bill Selnes.

When in Launceston, Tasmania last year I was looking for Australian mysteries and came across the Pan paperback edition featuring a cover photo of James Laurenson from the “Boney” television series of the 1970’s. The story was written and takes place in the 1950’s.

            It is set in the wild and remote Kimberley ranges of northwestern Australia. Detective Inspector, Napoleon (“Bony”) Bonaparte, because of plane trouble is forced to stay in Agar’s Lagoon. While there the local police officer, Constable Stenhouse, is found murdered and his aborigine tracker, Jackie Musgrave, is missing and presumed to be the killer.

            The investigation takes Bony into the rugged lands of the ranges talking to the widely scattered families on their stations. It takes tough men and women to survive in this country.

            It is a rare man who is not a hard drinker. The town is noted for being surrounded by a ring of empty liquor and beer bottles. Too expensive to return they are dumped.

            Bony is an anomaly in the Australia of the 1950’s. Half aborigine he has gained a position of importance and respect in the white world. In the northwest Australia of that time the aborigines are divided between the station blacks (workers and servants for the white settlers) and the wild blacks (still existing off the land).

            While the whites use radio transmitters the blacks take to the air with smoke signals that efficiently communicate messages between camps.

            As Bony investigates he becomes aware there is a parallel black investigation taking place. It was fascinating to read of the black justice system.

            Travel is slow and difficult. There could not have been a greater contrast with Mission to Chara. Bony averages 3-10 mph with stops for tea and conversation. There is a measured pace to the investigation. In Mission Colonel Phinney was traveling over 2,500 mph with decisions being made in seconds. There is less time for reflection in the 21st Century.

            It was an excellent story with a murder and solution rooted in the land of northwest Australia. In contrast to the stretched out novels of our age the book was 175 pages. I am going to search out more Bony stories. (Mar. 2/11)

****

WHILE APPRECIATING COMMENTS FROM ALL VISITORS I WOULD BE VERY INTERESTED IN COMMENTS FROM AUSTRALIAN VISITORS ON THE BONY BOOKS 50 TO 80 YEARS AFTER BEING WRITTEN AND THE T.V. SERIES CLOSE TO 40 YEARS AFTER THE SHOWS WERE TELEVISED.

You might like to visit Bill’s blog to leave a comment on his original post, but also feel free to leave it here.