Previous reviews are at Mack Pitches Up

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Sands of Windee by Arthur W. Upfield

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

Date & Location: October, 1924 - December 1924; Windee Station in western part of New South Wales. Broken Hill is south of Windee and within a day's drive.

While in Sidney finishing up a case, Bony (Napoleon Bonaparte), the half-caste detective inspector, happens to see a photograph of an abandoned automobile. The investigating officer believes that the driver, who had just left Windee Station slightly drunk, ran off the road, became disoriented, and wandered off into the bush. Bony sees something in the photograph that only an Aborigine would recognize and determines that a murder took place. This is the kind of case Bony craves, no body, little evidence and an apparently unsolvable mystery. He convinces the Chief Commissioner of N.S.W. to let him investigate. With only Sergeant Morris, the local police officer knowing his real identity, Bony heads to Windee to work undercover.

This is the second of Upfield's Bony novels. The first is The Barrakee Mystery which I discussed here. Like the first, The Sands of Windee has a touch of the melodrama, events of the past coming back to haunt the station owner, a young woman at the station seeking her true love.

Where The Barrakee Mystery does give us a detailed description of Bony's methods (keen observation and inductive reasoning), the mystery and the investigation are more tightly presented here. The chain of events flows better.

The reader won't have much difficulty figuring out the driver's disappearance but the solution does have an interesting twist. Someone who worked with Upfield while working on the No. 1 Rabbit Proof Fence tried to apply Upfield's method for disposing of a body. Upfield had to testify at the trial. The prosecution seemed surprised that Upfield spent time thinking of ways to dispose of bodies. Upfield later wrote about this event in The Murchison Murders. The Murchison is an area of Western Australia noted for mining.

The Sands of Windee is also interesting in that particular emphasis is placed on Bony's inner turmoil with the two sides of his nature, the Aborigine and the white. While the whites at Windee accept Bony without much consideration of his half-cast status, Bony develops a relationship with the station owner's daughter that has a significant impact on the conclusion of the case and threatens to compromise Bony's need to maintain his reputation for never failing to solve a crime.

Upfield manages to infuse his Bony stories with a visual sense of place, of the environment. You see how a station is run, the economics, how tenuous the existence can be. Upfield worked on the No. 1 Rabbit Proof Fence I was interested in how he describes the threat that rabbits represent to the station. Upfield also works in some good action when lightening touches off a range fire and everyone (including the local Catholic priest) mobilize to halt the fire and save the sheep.

Modern readers might have a problem with the overly elaborate language and racism but these books are a fascinating look at a world that is alien to most of us.