Classic Crime

Arthur Upfield

The quintessential Australian crime writer Arthur Upfield was in fact born in Gosport, England in 1888. After failing an apprenticeship exam, he was sent by his father to Australia in 1911 where he enlisted in the army and survived Gallipoli and the trenches of France during the First World War. On his return to Australia in 1921, he took a variety of jobs in the outback including cattle-drover, opal gouger and manager of a camel station. The aboriginal culture that he came into contact with was to provide the setting for his crime novels featuring the mixed-race Detective Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte (Bony). According to Upfield, Bony was based on a half-aboriginal tracker, Leon Wood, who was employed by the Queensland Police to help with investigations. Bony was the subject of twenty-nine detective stories written between 1929 and 1962.

In 1931, Arthur Upfield achieved notoriety when he was involved in a real life criminal case. An itinerant stockman, Snowy Rowles, who was known to Upfield, committed three murders using a method described in one of Upfield’s then unpublished books The Sands of Windee.

From 1972 to 1973, Upfield’s Inspector Bonaparte novels were filmed for an Australian TV series entitled Boney. It featured the New Zealand actor James Laurenson as the eponymous detective, a controversial choice for some critics who would have preferred an aboriginal actor in the role.

Arthur Upfield died in New South Wales in 1964. By allowing in his novels the outback to shape both the crimes and their solutions, he paved the way for writers such as Peter Temple whose works are rooted in the modern Australian urban and rural landscape . His books have also remained popular both in the UK and the US and were cited by the crime writer Tony Hillerman as a direct influence on his detective fiction featuring Navaho Tribal policeman Jim Chee.

Review: Wings Above the Diamantina

Despite Arthur Upfield’s prodigious output, all of his books featuring Detective Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte are of a consistently high quality. Sadly though, as very few are in print it is the more popular books that are easiest to obtain second-hand. Wings above the Diamantina have editions published by Pan, Penguin and Heinemann that are still easily obtainable and is, in my opinion, an excellent introduction to both the character of Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte and the setting of Upfield’s plots.
Upfield might not have been a native Australian but he obviously loved the landscape of his adopted land.

In Wings above the Diamantina the backdrop is the outback of Western Queensland, a harsh and destructive setting where settlers are forced to accept rather than harness nature. And it is this very landscape that provides the framework for the plot. A stolen red monoplane crashes into a dried-up Lake Emu and in the cock-pit a young woman is found, alive but in a state of drug induced paralysis.

The local police are stumped by the events leading up to the crash, particularly as there is no evidence of the plane’s pilot. The girl is moved to the house of cattle station owner John Nettleford and his daughter Elizabeth, where soon an attempt is made on the paralysed girl’s life. The whisky-soaked Doctor Knowles sobers himself up sufficiently to declare that it is now a race against time. The girl will die unless the perpetrator of the crash is discovered and an antidote to the poison revealed. Enter Bony, a mixed-race police inspector whose maternal aboriginal ancestry proves invaluable in dealing with the realities of outback life.

The book is good at exposing the prejudices meted out to native Australians. The author emphasises that it is only the inspector’s cultured manner and intelligent investigative methods that elevate him in the eyes of the white outback population. However those attempting to save the girls life must overcome their prejudices and rely on Bony’s expertise.

From tracking the seemingly trackless desert, to wrestling goanna lizards and surviving a sandstorm of biblical proportions, the true strength of the wiry detective is revealed and the power of the outback terrain is laid bare in all its glory. As Wings above the Diamantina shows, Upfield is rightly revered in Australia for bringing to life the outback way of life and providing a detective worthy of the best of classic crime.

Reviewed by: S.W.

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