Previous reviews are at Mack Pitches Up

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Barrakee Mystery by Arthur W. Upfield



First published by Hutchinson of London in 1929. Published in the U.S. with the title, The Lure of the Bush.

This is a Australian selection for Dorte's 2010 Global Reading Challenge.

Location: Barrakee Station in the North Western part of New South Wales on the Darling River, 75 miles up-river from Wilcannia, probably between Wilcannia and Bourke, March 1927.

Four significant and related events happen at Barrakee Station. William Clair, a sundowner (tramp) gets a job at the Station; King Henry, an Aborigine returns after 19 years on the run from a white man, now reported dead, who wanted to kill him; Ralph Thornton, 19 years old, the son of the station owner and his wife (but not natural son), returns from college; and King Henry is killed during a fierce thunderstorm, his skull caved in.

Though Clair is the obvious suspect but he has an alibi and the investigation into the death of King Henry stalls. The police of NSW request the loan of Napoleon Bonaparte (Bony), a half-cast detective inspector from Queensland, with highly developed powers of observation and deduction. Bony identifies himself to Mr. Thornton and is hired to work undercover as an employee of the station.

Upfield was well qualified to write about the Australian bush and life on the stations. He "humped his swag," worked on stations, and rode the no. 1 rabbit proof fence. See the biography linked below for more details on his life.

Upfield took a risk making his character a half-cast(the term used then). There was a public prejudice and a marked tolerance to violence toward Aborigines. Upfield himself appears to have had a great respect for the Aborigines but he reflects the times when he has Mrs. Thorton, the much loved, dear little mistress of the station say "Do you mean to tell me ... that you are still worrying about the killing of that black fellow." And a man say to a police sergeant "Are you telling me Sarge, that you are a-chasin' a white man for knocking an abo on the head?"

By contrast, Upfield gives Bony a Master of Arts degree from Brisbane University and make him a much respected detective-inspector. His skills as a bush detective were so respected that he never served as a common policeman. Though his skin is a ruddy black, he has European features and Mr. Thornton accepts him without hint of prejudice.

Bony has a Holmesian approach to solving a crime, observation and inductive reasoning. He has another Holmesian characteristic, he will only take on interesting cases. If it isn't a challenge to his skills, he isn't interested. He is a detective, not a policeman he like to say.
To Bony the case afforded mental exhilaration. because the rain had wiped out the letters and words stamped on the ground, Bony cried blessings on the rain. It was not now a humdrum case where good tracking only was required. To clear up the case successfully demanded inductive reasoning of a high order..."
Adopting my original and exclusive methods of detection, I shall proceed to take a name [of possible suspects] and prove the innocence of the owner by inductive reasoning.
This also sounds a bit like Hercule Poirot, doesn't it, eliminating the suspects one by one. Like Poirot, Bony has absolute confidence that he is the greatest detective.

Bony is a man of two worlds, white and Aboriginal and he is compelled not to let either side down. His abilities are a combination of his genetic make-up.
The habit of observation is the first essential, knowledge of the native of the wild the second, and reasoning power the third. Whilst the first and third essentials make a white man an efficient tracker, the second essential, combined with supervision, makes the black man and expert tracker. And through his black mother and his white father, Bony possessed the three essentials, plus abnormal vision; which was why he was a king of trackers.


I'm certain that Bony's knowledge of weapons and analysis of footprints and a scar on a tree would have drawn an admiring nod from the Great detective.

Anyone with a basic knowledge of soap opera plots will figure out where the story is going within the first few chapters. I put the story in the melodrama/romance category with prose at the purple end of the spectrum.
A
nd as the light fell upon the soul of Kate Flinders, revealing it to herself, showing her that at last she knew what love was, knew that she loved Frank Dugdale and had always loved him.


The story has three distinct aspects.

The first is the investigation and I've given examples of Bony's investigative approach earlier.

Second is life in the bush and on a station. Upfield excels here and his love of this part of Australia shows. I'd say this aspect dominates the story. Besides showing what the day-to-day life is like, Upfield has several very well done action sequences. In one, young Ralph chases down a dingo that has been preying on the stock. Another describes a mad dash on horseback across the bush trying to say ahead of flood water. Very visual and griping.

The third is the melodrama surrounding the Thorntons, what is the secret of Ralph's birth, how are they connected with William Clair and King Henry.

Despite the stilted prose and predictable story, I enjoyed The Barrakee Mystery. the character of Bony and the descriptions pastoral Australia made this an enjoyable read.

If this review interests you I have to warn you that this is a difficult book to find. I had to request it on interlibrary loan because available copies are too expensive.

The Wikipedia entry on Arthur Upfield is an OK starting point but I recommend Travis Lindsey's Biography of Arthur W. Upfield. A 2005 thesis submitted for his PhD. Lindesy's thesis is interesting reading. He puts Upfield's writing in context and has chapters on Aborigines in Society, Aborigines in Australian Literature, and The Genesis of Bony.

This is also an interesting site -- Unofficial Arthur W. Upfield & Inspector Napoleon Bonapart Home Page

3 comments:

Margot Kinberg said...

Mack - Such a thorough and interesting review! You've really intrigued, me, too, so it's a real shame this book's not easy to find. I shall have to dig for it.

Bernadette in Australia said...

Interesting thoughts Mack. I don't recall having read this particular book but have read others in the series. I find them very dated and some of them make me cringe at the various forms of bigotry portrayed in them. There's some stunning sexism as well as the racial prejudice though you're right Upfield himself doesn't appear to hold the views expressed by some of his characters. I have wondered before though if I cringe because it's all a bit too close for comfort - that I see a bit too much of my own country's pretty crappy treatment of some of its people and am far less comfortable with it than I would be reading a similar time frame book set in the US or elsewhere.

Mack said...

Thanks Margot. I hope I didn't over-think the story in case you read it and find yourself wondering what on earth I was going on about.

Bernadette, I thought about drawing comparisons between Australia in 1929 and the U.S. Change a few words and you could be talking about the treatment of Black Americans and Native Americans. I had "too close for comfort" feelings as well. The bigotry is an unfortunate reality and, I think, shouldn't be avoided.

One later U.S. reviewer (The Barrakee Mystery was never published in Australia) said that Upfield's language was stilted even for the time. He does employ some rather florid phrasing.

He could also write strong women well but weak women were frail creatures that needed a strong man to protect them. Like the bigotry, the sexism is difficult for modern readers.

I enjoyed the character of Bony and his personal conflict of coming from two worlds. I also really enjoyed his descriptions of the pastoralists (what we would call ranchers) and the Australian bush. Upfield clearly loved this part of Australia.