Arthur William Upfield (1 September 1890 – 13 February 1964) was an Australian writer best known for his 29 works of crime fiction featuring half-Aboriginal Detective Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte (‘Bony’) of the Queensland Police Force and set mostly in the Australian Outback. The novels were turned into a successful Australian television series and were particularly popular in America.
Two books on Upfield’s Bony, both with shiny sky-blue jackets and outback pix. Cambridge blesses Oz popular culture, you might think, at a distance. But the cool intellectualism of the university of the fens is undercut by the publishing location on Tyneside. And just that mix of academic discourse and street-level opinion is found inside these two books.
Before ascending to Bony, the emperor of hybrid detection, Duke’s `life and times’ replays the Sherlock Holmes game, writing about the fellow as if he was real. Duke logs all the cases and places and speculates on the origins and attitudes of the half-Indigenous detective. The detail is good, in a limited way, and has occasional flashes: two chapters are worth noting (see later), if you can tolerate the attendant bulk of marginalia.
De Hoog and Hetherington have a more familiar approach, having tracked down for reproduction a set of twenty-two pieces dealing with aspects of the Upfield novels about `Napoleon Bonaparte’, part-indigenous detective (Murri mother, English father), with an MA from the University of Queensland and a police inspector with a most improbable roaming lease to hang about until his insight and patience resolve murders throughout the western outback of the eastern states. `Centenary’ in the sub-title is a bit puzzling: the editors say there wasn’t one in 1990 for Upfield’s birth. But only the first seven pieces date that far back. So for 100 years read 122.
Wide as the coverage is (and some essays don’t really demand discussion here), a few interesting issues are not discussed at all, like Bony’s dad being a Brit, like Upfield. Is that important? Nor the MA – did Upfield know this meant a degree by long dissertation in those days? Or did he think it was as in Scotland and New Zealand, just an upgraded BA? Then again, what about the fact the Upfield, like many Poms, signed up for the AIF, including Gallipoli? Why hasn’t someone written an article on Upfield as a returned soldier like Hemingway, Hammett and (another whose service gets forgotten) Chandler. And there are the non-Bony novels. Are they like or unlike ? Enough for another volume there.
The menu actually offered by de Hoog and Hetherington is, perhaps unwisely, chronological: thematic clustering might have helped readers. A few pieces are refreshingly distractive. Richard Nile writes in lit-hist mode on Vance and Nettie Palmer – Upfield hated them after a dismissing review from Nettie, and didn’t he get his own back in An Author Bites the Dust? The victim is plainly (in both senses) Vance, and the Nettie substitute did it, very justifiably. Equally fine is a story by Mudrooroo about the definitely non-hybrid Detective Inspector Watson Holmes Jackamara of the Black Cockatoo Dreaming, a dark shadow deliberately cast by the author over Bony’s sometimes pale outline.
Aside from these exotics, the essays form up in reasonably predictable groups. As usual, Americans on Upfield – seven if you include Ada Coe, Australian-Italian but long-time US resident. The consistent American take on Upfield is as one of their own frontier writers, with much noble manly forging ahead. (What of Brockden Brown’s dark ironies or Cooper’s disturbing dichotomies that tend to reverse themselves – as in savage nobility?) Ray Browne is the US doyen, he of the Popular Press and Bowling Green University. Ray has little side on his bowls: in general he admires Upfield as a loyal outbacker, and Bony as a curator of the good bits of indigeneity, feeling in general we are not dealing with `social crime’. But even he does see some dark elements, like the well-discussed use of clothes to chart racial constraint in The Will of the Tribe.
Of interest to crime buffs is the short essay by John Cawelti, who made the major American 1970s statement on the inherent richness and so studyability of popular literature, with some Eurotheory along the way. But for him pop cult had no politics (no sign of the reverse hegemony the rest of us were questing) and he accepts Upfield as blandly creating ‘a rich fable of the interaction of cultures’. Then there’s Tony Hillerman, the white guy who created the Native American detective, with care and concern and not too much quaintness, or at least not for most white readers. He implies Upfield was a sort of source, though his own characters are full-bloods, and tangle with local practices and expectations, at least as the series developed.
There are some minor American voices. Marilyn Rye claims to be talking about cultural mediation but it’s basically all fine, Bony is nice to both sides and `Upfield wrote to lessen the distress to mankind’. Rye with water perhaps. Winona Howe, a young Californian professor, came to Oz in 2003 and read Upfield; she has the good wheeze of writing on the women but she avoids both the racial disparities (no clever frustrated dark girls in the stories) and the white ladies’ Bony-oriented lechery, just concluding that men `may inspect women, but they will never completely understand them’. Is that really Howe it works? Ada Coe offers some interesting ideas: one that these are a sort of enlightenment text, handling various forms of darkness, both black and white; and she also offers the useful notion that Upfield should be read against other imperial writers, essentially seeing Bony like Kim or Tarzan. We could hear more on that.
A senior Californian, James Pierson, offers an essentially anthropology-focused detective. Pierson knows his indigenes, and also crime fiction, and avoids simplicity by finding that Upfield’s account of aboriginality varies – sympathetic and concerned in The Bone is Pointed but more casual later on. Pierson focuses on the way Upfield engages anthropologically with his topic: beneath the plots there is some myth at work.
The Australians are in general closer to the texts than the Americans. The same manoeuvre is used with different emphasis by Tamsin Donaldson and Russell West, both seeing Upfield as basically avoiding the indigenous self-study of Sally Morgan in My Place. Donaldson, the first, sharply contrasts the first Bony story The Barrakee Mystery as a repressed miscegenation plot with the more or less resolved family mystery of My Place – and the acceptance of indigeneity in the latter is the path to some form of clarity which the former cannot allow. West goes in through Bony and the Black Virgin, but gives a similar effective account. Unease about Upfield’s treatment of Indigenous people was, for this collection, first raised by Heather Parish in a piece from the 1970s South Australian WEA; a parallel critique is much more forcefully put in Kay Torney’s 1996 essay that, also stressing The Barrakee Mystery, sees Bony operating symbolically in `the Deathspace’, a world that mimes the killing zones of the worst of racial contact in Australia.
The editor herself remarks that the time of such harsh racial readings of Upfield is passing: I don’t myself see that, and her own main essay is a rather tame round-up of the Bony books as crime fiction classics, in which she even criticises Knight for suggesting Bony’s boom with Doubleday of New York (contract-signing in 1942) was part of US military tourism. We don’t recognise displacement here.
More searching is Glen Ross, who has a Queensland PhD, in a lengthy piece seeing how the crimes show racial and social misunderstandings developing to fatal levels. His title and idea is that Bony is `a grotesque’, a fantasy figure at the junction of nature and culture (looking back to Coe) who `performed a type of self-surveillance against accepting himself as white’. He also suggests that Doubleday editing made Bony rather less dark than before.
Also of value is Travis Lindsay’s study of the origin of Bony. Upfield gave hints to models, the strongest being `Tracker Leon’, but Lindsay feels this and others were really just narratives and Bony is Upfield’s wish-fulfilment. Much more than banal historicism, this piece exposes Upfield as, within a narrow period-bound concept, supportive of indigenes and passionately identified with rural Australia, no longer linked to the English family and context that had cast him out in forced migration.
Several of the essayists, without seeing much in it, regard Bony as being like Sherlock Holmes – in Madman’s Bend he jokes on the common farce name Holmlock Shears. Both figures are fantasies of power: Holmes appears scientistic yet is actually a white-collar clerk run feral; because Bony is in part enlightenment man he can therefore seem a noble savage. Like Holmes, with disordered bourgeois families’ rage, he resolves the nature/culture clash over and over: we read on for more consolation: these are what Freud called repetition compulsions.
Ross and Coe point the way forward with a mythic nature/culture reading, asking on which side is Bony? Or is he both? The antiquity and dignity of Indigenous culture is in him, sometimes disturbingly strong, as in the books that Donaldson and West choose, but sometimes bland, as smart black guy. At Upfield’s best, that natural culture confronts the individualist achievement of the acculturated culture of the white myth.
If the best of these essays look towards such a sociomythic reading of the Bony stories, that topic can loom mirage-like in the apparently barren stretches of Michael Duke’s book. Chapter 6 is `Bony’s Philosophy: Being and Blackness’ and 9 is `Aboriginality and Otherness’, both picking up in quasi-reality the complexities of Bony’s racial representation.
The success of the series as a debate about Australianness is clear enough, though it is curious, even suspicious, to have such success in two nations, America and Germany, without (or denying) a dubious imperialist past. For Indigenous people there is much to deplore, starting with the insulting name (which most critics don’t seem to mind). Women, the working class, even children, are all given a pretty offhand deal as well. But no one can doubt the energy of the stories that comes from their deep encounter between versions of the natural and versions of the cultural, as control of both is struggled over in a particular country at a particular time. The Europeans may have won: but their literature relives the conflict with anxiety, even guilt. Bony is a sort of literary intervention.
These essays show that commentators are beginning to get there with Upfield. But like his war service and Bony’s MA, there is more to think about, and we may do better in general by looking at the deep mythic structures than at the bits and pieces of detail. Too many critics remain on the surface, letting us pretend that we are just handling puzzles; in fact the real challenges of crime fiction are deep critiques of both nature and culture, and like Bony’s battles, they are more profound and more compulsive than mere puzzles. Only 78 years to go for the next centenary.
Michael Duke Detective Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte: his life and times, Cambridge Scholars, 2010, HB, 262pp, £39.99; Kees de Hoog and Carol Hetherington eds Investigating Arthur Upfield: a centenary collection of critical essays, Cambridge Scholars, 2012, HB, 278pp, $39.99
Stephen Knight taught university English at Sydney, ANU and Melbourne before doing 20 years back in Britain where he became Professor and Head of English and later Distinguished Research Professor at Cardiff University. He is now Honorary Research Professor of English Literature at the University of Melbourne. He has long been a reviewer and proponent of Australian crime fiction. His latest book is The Mysteries of the Cities: urban crime fiction in the nineteenth century (McFarland, 2012).
These books are available from the publishers’ links above or from online bookstores.