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Wednesday 13 January 2021

Arthur Upfield (1888-1964)

 by Marsali Taylor

I discovered Arthur Upfield in the way we all used to find new authors ... in a second-hand bookshop. Not the modern antiquarian bookseller, with beautifully bound volumes displayed on stands, and prices starting at £20 - a real second-hand bookshop, with that smell of damp books, and thousands of paperbacks jammed higgledy-piggledy into too few shelves, piled up in boxes on the floor, and costing 25p each. The book I eased out of the shelf was promisingly titled, The Clue of the New Shoe, 'An Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte Mystery' and had a 60s picture of a gun over some coins, a key and a photo of nurses. The blurb on the back began 'The nude body of a man is discovered entombed in the walls of Split Point Lighthouse on the South-East Coast of Australia' and explained Inspector Bonaparte, Upfield's half-aborigine detective. 

Arthur Upfield was born in Gosport, Hants, in 1888, and moved to Australia in 1910, aged 23. When World War I began, he immediately enlisted as a driver with the First Light Horse Brigade. He sailed from Brisbane in September 1914, and fought at Gallipoli and in France. He was discharged in England in October, 1919. Writing in the 1940s and 50s, he transferred some of his WWI experiences to the WWII service of his characters. While in Egypt in 1915, he'd married Ann Douglas, a nurse. Their only child, James, was born in England in 1919, just before they returned to Australia. For the next two decades, Upfield worked in the outback, as a boundary-rider, cattle-drover, rabbit-trapper and station-manager. It was there, out in the wilds, that he got to know the aborigines and their customs, and this is one strand of the books that I found fascinating. The structure of a local tribe is explored, and their relationships with other tribes – their use of telepathy, and communication by smoke signals – cutting with flints during initiation rites - the marriage customs – in one novel, Upfield follows Bony’s mind as he ‘hears’ the stories re-told by the sound of the dijeridoo.  There’s even a recipe for making a eucalyptus steam bath! One ‘Goodreads’ reviewer comments on the racism in the book.  Certainly many of the characters have a casual racism that would have been normal at the times the books were set.  However Upfield’s attitude towards his aboriginal characters (I found them much more vivid than his white characters) shows respect for their customs and admiration for their abilities.  He also tackles the problem of a community in flux, changed by the work of the Missions and the encroachment of the white settlers – I found it interesting that as recently as the 1950s, he was talking of ‘wild abos’.
Upfield finally settled in New South Wales. He became a member of the Australian Geographical Society, and was involved in scientific expeditions, including a major exploration of northern and western parts of Australia, in 1948. This included the Wolfe Creek crater, the setting for The Will of the Tribe (1962), his novel which deals most closely with an aborigine tribe. In ‘Boney buys a Woman’, there are wonderful descriptions of Lake Eyre, the mud rippling as though disturbed by a huge reptile, the heat, the mirage effects – you can just imagine Upfield there, on one of his expeditions, watching it.Upfield's first published novel, The House of Cain (Hutchinson, 1928) was a thriller about a murderer who kept 'open house' for fellow murderers. His second, The Barrakee Murders (Hutchinson, 1929) was the first of 29 'Bony' novels. He would publish roughly one novel a year until his death in 1964, at first with Hutchinson, then, from 1936, with Angus and Robertson in Sydney, Heinemann in London and Doubleday in New York. He also published six non-series novels. His last novel, The Frome Lake Monster, was completed from his notes by J L Price and Dorothy Stange. There is also a biography, Follow my Dust, ostensibly written by Jessica Hawke, but generally believed to have been written by Upfield. A further biography, Bony's Man: the life and times of Arthur W Upfield by A J Milnor, was published in 2008. Kees de Hoog has a blog site devoted to Upfield, and runs an on-line bookshop. Upfield's fourth novel, The Sands of Windee, involved him in real-life crime. The story tells of a perfect murder - too perfect, for Upfield discussed how he could manage to have Bony detect the criminal with a number of people. One of these mentioned the problem to a stockman called Snowy Rowles - who then used the body disposal method in a series of three murders. Upfield was called as a witness at the trial, and later wrote up the story as The Murchison Murders. H R F Keating put The Sands of Windee in his list of 100 best mystery and crime novels Upfield's detective, Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte, was apparently based on a character he knew well, 'Tracker Leon', who was employed as a tracker by the Queensland Police. 'Bony' too belongs officially to the Queensland Police Force, but in most of the novels he's working undercover in another area. His father was white, his mother aboriginal, and he himself is striking-looking: tall, with sleek, dark hair, a straight, slim nose, and blue eyes. The only outward sign of his ancestry is slightly darker skin, and through the novels various wrong guesses are made at his nationality. One of his strengths as a detective is his ability to blend in with any company, from ranch hands at a bar to middle-class society. However he learned a good deal from his mother's tribe (his mother was murdered when he was a baby), and some of his abilities seem amazing to us, particularly his tracking abilities, where he can tell shoe size at a glance, give details of weight, walk and personality from a print, and remember a print for recognition a year later.
Bony is an enigmatic character by the standards of today's dysfunctional, soul-bearing detectives. We hear little of his home life in Brisbane with his wife, Marie, and three grown-up sons - the oldest, Charles, is studying to become a doctor, the youngest is called Ed. However he is an attractive character, imaginative and sensitive to atmosphere, particularly that of violence or death. He's quick to notice and read the natural world around him, and has a genuine warmth towards others. Like many other detectives, he doesn't always feel that law and justice are the same. Naturally, he has the action man's resourcefulness and rapid reactions in time of danger. He has the maverick's distrust of officialdom, and refuses to work to a timetable. He's proud of his reputation for never having failed to solve a case.  Bony (as Boney, Upfield's original spelling, allegedly altered by a publisher's misprint) had several outings on Australian TV: in a 26 episode series in 1972-3, with Bony played by James Laurenson, in a 1990 telemovie, and in a spin-off TV series in 1992. Upfield's plotting is always good, in the classic tradition, with the surprise 'whodunnit' at the end - and it generally is surprising. His use of Australian speech is lively, though his more formal speech sometimes feels 'written'. His greatest strength is in his evocation of the bush background: the terrain, the wildlife, and the variety of people who live there, ranch owners, small farmers, labourers, and of course the aboriginal people. If you enjoy 'Golden Age' crime, or like unusual settings, and haven't tried his books yet, you're in for a treat. 

Marsali Taylor grew up near Edinburgh, and came to Shetland as a newly-qualified teacher. She is currently a part-time teacher on Shetland's scenic west side, living with her husband and two Shetland ponies. Marsali is a qualified STGA tourist-guide who is fascinated by history, and has published plays in Shetland's distinctive dialect, as well as a history of women's suffrage in Shetland. She's also a keen sailor who enjoys exploring in her own 8m yacht, and an active member of her local drama group.  Marsali also does a regular monthly column for the Mystery People e-zine.

Click on the title to read a review of her recent book Death on a Shetland Isle  

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