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Arthur Upfield (1890*-1964)

 

English-Australian mystery writer, who roamed in his youth the sub-continent working as a boundary-rider, cattle-drower, rabbit-trapper and station-manager. Upfield's famous hero is the Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte (or 'Bony', as he is known in the books familiarly), the son of an unknown white man and an aborigine mother. Bony is a gentleman and genius of criminal science, who has an M.A. degree from Brisbane University. During his investigations Bony frequently faces race prejudices but wins them with his wit and smile. Bony is fully aware of his talents and solves crimes confidently through patience.

"'Every successful investigator owes much to Lady Luck,' he told Irwin. 'No investigator ever begins to be successful unless driven by curiosity. Luck, curiosity, plus a little inductive reasoning into the behavior of foxes and eagles, will raise any police recruit to the top of his department.'" (from Cake in the Hat Box, 1954)

William Arthur Upfield was born in Gosport, Hampshire, the son of James Oliver Upfield, a prosperous draper, and Annie Upfield, née Barmore, a shop assistant. Very soon in his early years, Upfield's first names were reversed, and he became known as Arthur William. From the age of six or seven, he lived with his grandparents for a period, and then returned to his parents' home. On leaving school at the age of sixteen he was apprenticed to a firm of estate agents, but he failed the qualifying examination – partly because he spent all his time with writing unpublished novels, Sexton Blakeish thrillers. However, at school he had had problems with spelling and he failed in English. Around the age of eighteen, he joined as a part-time trooper the Hampshire Carabineers Yeomanry.

Upfiled's father sent him to Australia in 1911, so he would be less likely to bring disgrace to the family and he would have a new opportunity to seek his fortune. Upfield was fascinated by the wildness and freedom of the country. During the following years he travelled widely, working in odd jobs, such as a cook in a hotel, boundary rider for sheep stations, and cowhand, among other things. He learned of the Aboriginals, their culture, and this period gave him much of the material that he would later use in his fiction. Rumors, that at some point of his life he he had an Aboriginal wife and childred, have never been confirmed. In Follow My Dust! (1957) he said: "In all human history no people are closer to the Christian ideals than the Australian aborigine, and next to him is the white man who is captured by the aborigines' Spirit of the inland. Give an aborigine a pair of trousers, and another is wearing them the next day. Give him a hunk of meat, and he shares it all round. The white man is hungry, hand him a meal." "

With the outbreak of World War I, Upfield joined the Australian Imperial Force. He fought at Gallipoli and in Egypt and France. In 1915 he married in Anne Douglass, a nurse, whom he had met in a hospital near Alexandria while recovering from gastritis. His second youngest brother Nelson was killed on the Somme.

After the war Upfield returned to England, where he worked as a private secretary to an army officer. However, adjusting to normal life was not easy for him. "With the ever-growing clarity I came to see that neither my wife nor I would be happy in England, no matter what height I reacher," he later said. Upfield sailed back to Australia in 1921. He continued his wandering and worked as an itinerant trapper, miner, whatever there was to be had, realizing eventually that "the life road I was now traveling wasn't going to make me upward into the light of prosperity and happiness and contentment."

In the late 1920s Upfield started again to plan career in literature. He took a job as a cook at the isolated Wheeler's Well in New South Wales and spent his spare time in writing. He produced four novels, among them The House of Cain (1928), in which a hideout for murderers is run by an evil millionaire murderer. His serious novels did not sell well, but with Bony Bonaparte and The Barakee Mystery (1929) Upfield finally gained success. "A mystery story whose plot is original yet entirely probable, whose setting is unusual, and whose characters are neither puppets nor monsters, deserves recognition," said a reviewer in the Times Literary Supplement. Noteworthy, Upfield's "half-caste" detective made his appearance when Aborigines were treated as something less than human.

Upfield had made in the bush the acquaintance of Leon Wood, a half-caste Aborigine, a tracker employed by the Queensland Police. "He was the son of a station owner, and had received a high school education. Like all his type, the bush had drawn him back and claimed him." Upfied decided that he would change the white detective in The Barrakee Mystery to his friend and Wood became the model for his detective hero, Inspector Napoleon (Boney) Bonaparte. Bony was found beneath a sandalwood tree when he was two-week-old infant, beside his dead mother, and brought to a mission school. There he was named after the subject of a book he was attempting to eat. After reveiving a Master of Arts at the University in Brisbane, Bony joined the Queenland police service. His wife, the grey-eyed Marie, is also half-caste; they have three sons, Charles, Bob, and Ed. Bony has initiation marks on his back and chest, made with a sharp flint. He uses the skills of both his cultures, Aboriginal instincts and Western intelligence, and he likes tough cases which take him all over Australia.

Bony was in 29 novels. J.B. Priestley wrote of Upfield: "If you like detective stories that are something more than puzzles, that have solid characters and backgrounds, that avoid familiar patterns of crime and detection, then Mr Upfield is your man." In The New Shoe (1952) an old craftsman makes a red-gum casket, which nearly becomes Bony's coffin. The Man of Two Tribes (1956) is a story of survival in the desolate Nullarbor Plains. In Murder Down Under (1937) Bony is on holiday in western Australia and meets the bizarre Mr. Jelly, an amateur criminologist who collects portraits of murders. The critic H.R.F. Keating included in 1987 Upfield's The Sands of Windee (1931) among the 100 best crime and mystery books ever published. In the story about a "perfect murder" Upfield invented a method to destroy carefully all evidence of the crime. His "Windee method" was used in a true-life crime, the Snowy Rowles murder case, in which one of his friend was killed. Like in the fictional story, a murder was concealed by the mixing of human and kangaroo ashes. It was assumed that the perpetrator had heard Upfield discussing the plot of the novel with his companions at Dromedary camel station in 1929.

In Cake in the Hat Box (1954) Bony is caught between two systems of justice. Constable Stenhouse is found dead in his police jeep on a lonely dirt road. Bony soon realizes that he is not the only person searching for the feller who shot Stenhouse. Jacky Musgrave, the police tracker, is supposedly killed and the local aborigine tribe wants vengeance too. Bony tells Constable Irwin about aborigines: "They are loyal to white men living for a long time in their own locality, and suspicious of all others. It takes years of association and study to reach even the middle of the bridge spanning the gulf between them and us. Be patient. A thousand years are as nothing in this timeless land, and when the last aboriginal sinks down to die, despite the veneer imposed on him by our civilization, he will be the same man as were his forebears ten thousand years ago." By modern standards, some of the content of the books would not be considered politically correct – Upfield refers to Aborigines as "Abos" which was acceptable in Australia in the 1960s but is not acceptable today.

"It was one of Bony's axioms that Time is the investigator's greatest ally." "Bony felt the satin smoothness of wood, was reminded of the red sand of inland, the real heart of Australia which fools continue to claim dead." (from The New Shoe, 1952)

According to the journalist and Upfield's serials agent Pamela Ruskin, the author was a tough, irascible, wiry man, with slate-colored eyes and "a thin trap of a mouth and ears like jug handles." He wrote normally for five hours every day, typing with two fingers, smoking while writing, and ignoring spelling. It took about seven months to complete a book. In the early 1930s, Upfield ran with his wife a guest house in Kalamunda; novels had not brought them a fortune. He was then employed by the Melbourne afternoon paper, the Herald. After the outbreak of WW II, he volunteered for the Australian Imperial Forces, receiving an appointment as a military censor at the headquarters.

During the war such Bone novels as Murder Down Under (Doubleday, 1943), Wings Above the Claypan (Doubleday, 1943), No Footprints in the Bush (Doubleday, 1944) were brought out in the United States. Winds of Evil (Doubleday, 1944) was placed by the mystery writer Craig Rice (pseudonym of Georgianna Ann Randolph) at the head of her ten "whodunits" of the year. The Doubleday Crime Club editions were not paperbacks, but well-designed hardbacks. Upfield's sympathetic characterization of the world of Aborigines and skillful depiction of the natural environment, bush fires, drought, sudden rains and dry lakes, gave his works special quality which separated them from the usual style of hardboiled crime fiction.

Although Upfield's mysteries attracted readers in England and America and received good reviews, he was never wholeheartedly admitted to the Australian literary establishment. In later years, Upfield became prominent in the Australian Geological Society. He led a major expedition in 1948 to northern and western parts of the country. The party included Michael Sharland, journalist, Ray Bean, photographer, Harry Tate, motor mechanic, George King, cook, and J.K. Ewers, author and columnist, whom Upfield had known since the 1930s.

Arthur Upfield died in Bowral on February 13, 1964. The last Bony novel, The Lake Frome Monster (1966), was completed by J.L. Price and Dorothy Stange. Upfield's long-time companion, Jessica Hawke, published a biography in collaboration with author entitled Follow My Dust! It draws from a work he wrote in the 1930s, The Tale of a Pommy, but he not get it published. Upfield lived with Hawke at Airey's Inlet, Victoria, and at Bermagui and Bowral, New South Wales, from the late 1940s.

*According to Upfield’s birth certificate, he was born on 1 September, 1890, not in 1888 as usually stated. Upfield himself once claimed that the certificate burned in a campfire in Queensland.
For further reading: Arthur W. Upfield: The Life and Times of Bony's Man by A.J. Milnor (2008); Arthur William Upfield: A Biography by Travis B. Lindsey (Diss. Murdoch U., 2005); World Authors 1900-1950, vol. 4. ed. by Martin Seymour-Smith and Andrew C. Kimmens (1996); A Checklist of Arthur Upfield by Christopher P. Stephens (1992); The Spirit of Australia: The Crime Fiction of Arthur W. Upfield by Ray B. Browne (1988); Crime & Mystery: the 100 Best Books by H.R.F. Keating (1987); Follow My Dust! by Jessica Hawke (1957) - Films: 3 Acts of Murder (2009), TV movie, dir. Rowan Woods, teleplay Ian David, starring Robert Menzies (as Arthur Upfield), Luke Ford (as Snowy Rowles), Bille Brown, Anni Finsterer, Nicholas Hope. - In Search of Bony (2007), prod. Two Heads Media, dir. by Lisa Matthews, written by Caroline Baum, Lisa Matthews, with Aaron Pedersen (as Bony). - Boney (1972–1973), TV series of 26 episodes, prod. Portman Productions, Scottish Television Enterprises, starring James Laurenson (as Detective Inspector Bonaparte), Kate Fitzpatrick and David Gulpilil

Selected works:

  • The House of Cain, 1926
  • The Barakee Mystery, 1928 (US title: The Lure of the Bush, 1965)
  • The House of Cain, 1928
  • The Beach of Atonement, 1930
  • The Sands of Windee, 1931
  • A Royal Abduction, 1932
  • Gripped by Drought, 1932
  • The Muchison Murders, c. 1934
  • Wings above the Diamantina, 1936 (UK title: Winged Mystery, 1937; U.S. title Wings above the Claypan, 1943) - Bony ja punainen lentokone (suom. Helvi Vasara, 1969)
  • Mr. Jelly's Business, 1937 (U.S. title Murder Down Under, 1943)
  • Mystery of Swordfish Reef, 1939
  • Winds of Evil, 1937
  • The Bone is Pointed, 1938
  • Bushranger of the Skies, 1940 (U.S. title No Footprints in the Bush, 1944)
  • Death of a Swagman, 1946
  • The Devil's Steps, 1946
  • The Mountains Have a Secret, 1948
  • An Author Bites the Dust, 1948
  • The Widows of Broome, 1950
  • The Bachelors of Broken Hill, 1950
  • The Clue of the New Shoe, 1952 (U.S. title The New Shoe, 1952)
  • Venom House, 1952
  • Murder Must Wait, 1953
  • Death of a Lake, 1954
  • The Cake in the Hat Box, 1954 (U.S. title Sinister Stones, 1955)
  • Battling Prophet, 1956
  • The Man of Two Tribes, 1956
  • Bony Buys a Woman, 1957 (U.S. title The Bushman Who Came Back, 1957) - Bony ostaa naisen (suom. Tutteli Lindberg, 1971)
  • Bony and the Black Virgin, 1959
  • Bony and the Mouse, 1959 (U.S. title Journey to the Hangman, 1959)
  • Bony and the Kelly Gang, 1960 (U.S. title Valley of Smugglers, 1960)
  • Bony and the White Savage, 1961 (U.S. title The White Savage, 1961)
  • The Will of the Tribe, 1962
  • Madman's Bend, 1963 (U.S. title The Body at Madman's Bend)
  • Lake Frome Monster, 1966 (completed by J.L. Price and Dorothy Strange)
  • Up and Down Autsralia, 2008 (ed. Kees de Hoog)
  • Up and Down the Real Australia, 2009 (ed. Kees de Hoog)


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