Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Australian Mysteries, Part 2: Arthur W. Upfield, 1890-1964, and the Bony Books

Arthur W. (William) Upfield was born in England, and first came to Australia at age 20; it was a moment in his life when he was ready to adopt this complex land for his own, and although he returned briefly to England, he soon brought his wife and growing family to the land of kangaroos and the Outback.

His mystery novels fastened squarely on the racial prejudices he saw around him, enacted through a "half-caste" (half White, half Aborigine) detective inspector that he named Napoleon Bonaparte. The mystery series is often called the Bony books -- and Bony is used as a nickname in the stories -- but some versions of Upfield's life say that was a typing error by the publisher, and the author's original version had been Boney. This spelling reemerged when the books began to be turned into films.

Upfield's handling of the stresses and strengths of D.-I. Bonaparte reflect what might now be regarded as racial essentialism: He presumed that the Aboriginal "half" of Bony would be fierce and inclined to inflict death when enraged, and the white "half" would be civilized. Upfield's principal violation of this assumption, and a fascinating one, is his construction of the character as drawing his intelligence from both sides of his genetic inheritance, as well as from the odd circumstances of his upbringing.

There are 29 Bony books, and they are considered the best of Upfield's work; his first book, THE HOUSE OF CAIN, was published in 1928, but the first Bony book came out a year later, to much acclaim. Here's a list of the Bony titles, courtesy of Robert Wilfred Franson:

1929 The Barrakee Mystery = The Lure of the Bush
1931 The Sands of Windee
1936 Wings Above the Diamantina = Wings Above the Claypan;
= Winged Mystery
1937 Mr Jelly’s Business = Murder Down Under
1937 Winds of Evil
1938 The Bone Is Pointed
1939 The Mystery of Swordfish Reef
1940 Bushranger of the Skies = No Footprints in the Bush
1943 Death of a Swagman
1946 The Devil's Steps
1948 An Author Bites the Dust
1950 The Widows of Broome
1955 The Mountains Have a Secret
1951 The New Shoe
1952 Venom House
1953 Murder Must Wait
1954 Death of a Lake
1955 Cake in the Hat Box = Sinister Stones
1956 The Battling Prophet
1956 Man of Two Tribes
1957 Bony Buys a Woman = The Bushman Who Came Back
1958 The Bachelors of Broken Hill
1959 Bony and the Mouse = Journey to the Hangman
1959 Bony and the Black Virgin = The Torn Branch
1959 Bony and the White Savage
1960 Bony and the Kelly Gang = Valley of the Smugglers
1962 The Will of the Tribe
1963 Madman’s Bend = The Body at Madman's Bend
1966 The Lake Frome Monster [posthumous collaboration]

Note that many of the books had multiple titles. Among them, THE BONE IS POINTED is often a readers' favorite; I am currently enjoing THE BATTLING PROPHET.

Upfield's books are increasingly harder to find in early editions, and the hardcovers are scarce; sometimes the softcovers are nearly as collectible. A solid reference on the author and books is THE SPIRIT OF AUSTRALIA: THE CRIME FICTION OF ARTHUR W. UPFIELD, by Ray B. Browne (Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1988). Browne's detailed analysis of the work delves into Upfield's exploration of the half-castes and of the independent men who labored to eke out a living in the Outback; it also gives details of the individual books. It's becoming almost as hard to obtain as the Bony books themselves.

Although the language in the books is now dated (definitely 19th century in its structure), the plots are generally well done in the British style, and the insights into Upfield's perception of the bush and its inhabitants are compelling, quirky, and an added plus to the series.


Kees de Hoog said...

Which versions of Upfield's life say that the the nickname Bony was an error by the publisher and that original version was Boney?

Anonymous said...

I first found these mysteries at Bellevue Regional Library (part of the King County Library System (kcls)). I was looking for a mystery I hadn't read yet. I am a big fan and look for the odd title I haven't yet read in used book stores.

While I know Bony will find the answer, I like these 'historical' mysteries because they picture an Australia of old - one that I haven't found in other books and one so different from life in the states.