An Oldie but a Goodie

I finished my book recently and stood bereft the next night before bed. I had nothing new to read. Desperate, I looked through a shelf of secondhand books that I had bought years ago for different reasons: their bindings, the author, their age, or just something quirky about them that attracted me. I came upon a novel by Arthur Upfield, who wrote the ‘Bony’ series, featuring the character Napoleon Bonaparte, a half-Indigenous, half-Caucasian Australian who was a talented detective inspector for the Queensland police.

Napoleon Bonaparte, or Bony, as he liked to be called, had the skills and knowledge of the two sides of his heritage. He was highly intelligent and a skilled tracker and horse breaker. He had a deep understanding of the landscape, and he knew what made both cultures tick. He was a big reader, constantly absorbing information. He knew he was good. He was an early Australian Sherlock Holmes.

Upfield wrote 29 books in the ‘Bony’ series from 1926 to 1966. He wrote a number of other books, but this series was his enduring claim to fame. He was a man of the outback, and this shows in his evocative descriptions of the land. Although born in England, he arrived in Australia in 1911 at the age of 21. He worked with a mule team, was a fence builder, boundary rider, opal digger, served for Australia in World War I in Egypt, Gallipoli, England and France, and worked on building the No. 1 rabbit-proof fence in WA. A member of the Australian Military intelligence during World War II, he also worked for The Herald newspaper in Melbourne and worked as a freelance writer for many years. He had a life filled with adventure, and he used many of his experiences to come up with ideas for his stories. Apparently while working on the rabbit-proof fence he imagined a method of disposing of a body that he used in the I’m now reading, The Sands of Windee. But a friend he worked with on the fence, Snowy Rowles, used that idea to plot the murder of three men. Upfield testified in court against him and Rowles was hanged.

This prolific author is not recognised enough for his contribution to Australian literature. As you can imagine – because of the time when they were written – the books used politically incorrect terms or words that are now considered offensive. It might be fiction, but it describes and records our country in a bygone era, warts and all. And yes, as I read I do cringe from time to time at some of the language, such as half-caste or a father calling his daughter girlie. The writing is unmistakably from another era, with its structured, more formal and sometimes stilted sentences. But that’s the way it is for books of that time. Upfield’s fan base includes some prestigious crime writers: H R F Keating, J B Priestley and Tony Hillerman to name a few. I am certainly enjoying the book.

In the 1970s the ‘Bony’ books were made into a television series of 26 episodes called Boney, which was a different spelling from that used in Upfield’s novels. Apparently the publisher made an error and removed the ‘e’, so Upfield had no choice after it was printed. There are rumours that the TV series could be released again this year.

My copy of The Sands of Windee is yellowed and very old. That night, as my eyelids drooped and the pull of sleep took over, I came to turn the page down to mark my place. I hesitated. I couldn’t do it. I felt enormous respect for this little book that Arthur Upfield conceived while working on the rabbit-proof fence so many years ago. It’s hardbound, made with an eye to quality and has been passed through so many hands; and it’s survived all those years pretty well intact. I slid in a piece of paper between the pages to mark my place before turning off the light and closing my eyes.

Arthur Upfield

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