Mr Jelly’s Business, Arthur Upfield

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Born in England, Arthur Upfield (1890-1964) moved to Australia in 1911, enlisting with the first AIF in 1914. Demobbed in London in 1919, he returned to Australia in 1921,  travelling and working extensively throughout the bush. According to the ADB, he began writing in the late 1920s. His first novel, The Barrakee Mystery (1929), originally had a white protagonist, but influenced by an Indigenous friend, Leon Wood, it was rewritten and became the first of 29 ‘Napoleon Bonaparte’ detective novels. Bony is mixed race identifying as Aboriginal, as is his wife, university educated, and a Detective Inspector in the Queensland police force – although his long-suffering chief often has to lend him out to other forces around Australia.

Mr Jelly’s Business (1937), which appears to be number four in the series, is set at Burracoppin in Western Australia, a hamlet of half a dozen houses and rail siding/wheat storage facility between Merredin and Southern Cross, on the main east-west rail line, highway, and water pipe-line. Also the location, near enough, as I commented in my review, of Stephen Daisley’s (much less convincing) Coming Rain.

Bolinda Books commence all their Bony mysteries with a warning that the language used (about Aboriginals) reflects common usage at the time. Upfield has an obviously loving attitude towards his protagonist and means only to point out the strengths of Indigenous culture. But still. They are very enjoyable novels to listen to, but I sometimes wonder what or how much acceptance of casual racism that implies.

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Upfield’s map of Burracoppin

Upfield worked around Burracoppin, clearing bush (probably along the rabbit-proof fence which runs north-south on the right hand side of the map), and except that the rail line was relocated to the north of the town and a modern silo built when the line was converted from narrow to standard gauge, very little has changed since he was there more than eighty years ago.

The ostensible mystery is that a farmer, George Loftus, well under the weather, left Leonard Wallace’s hotel at 1 am, forgot to turn off towards the Old York Rd at the end of town and instead continued along the track to the rabbit-proof fence. Attempting to turn around, he backed his car into the ditch along which ran the Goldfields water pipeline, abandoned it and was never seen again.

There is a second mystery, which only gradually becomes apparent, and that is where does farmer and widower, Mr Jelly go when he disappears for days at a time, even during the harvest, without telling his daughters.

Bony embeds himself in the town as a worker for the State Rabbit Department, living in the working men’s quarters and eating at Mrs Poole’s boarding house.

Mrs Poole was about forty years old, tall and still handsome … Into her brown eyes flashed suspicion at sight of the half-caste, at which he was amused, as he always was when the almost universal distrust of his colour was raised in the minds of white women.

The country, through which I drive nearly every day while I’m on the Kalgoorlie run, is lovingly and knowledgeably described.

They had reached the summit of the long slope. Before them lay a great semicircle of low, flat country chequered by wheat and fallow paddocks: to the east and south-east reaching to the foot of a sand rise similar to that on which they stood; to the south far beyond the horizon; to the south-west extending to a sand rise which drew closer the farther north it came… The [Loftus] house lay not quite half a mile from the road at the foot of a long outcrop of granite with oaktrees [sheoaks] growing in the crevices.

A little like Maigret (my other favourite), Bony works his way into a case by absorbing all the details, though of course Bony is the better tracker, and allowing intuition to build. Over the days he works on the fence, felling timber, splitting posts, drinks (sparingly) at the pub, goes to the local dance, gets to meet all the locals.

I don’t know what I enjoy more, the gentle progress of Bony’s detectings, or the descriptions of a way of life not so long gone that I don’t have my own memories of harvesting and carting bagged wheat, of an Australia, particularly in the bush, before widespread mechanisation. You can take it as read that Bony makes friends with Mrs Poole, the Wallaces, the Jelly girls, his workmates. That he uses his tremendous powers of observation and deduction to come up with solutions to both the mysteries and to a third – who milks Mrs Poole’s cow in the early mornings? My interest today is the implied racism.

To Bony, used to the solitudes of the eastern side of the great heart of Australia, the bustle and noise [of the harvest] seemed to push him spiritually farther away from his aboriginal ancestry than at times had the roar and bitter grimness of the cities. Here was the white man’s life in all its naked virility, all its indomitable courage, its inventive genius. From the spot on which he was standing he could see mile beyond mile of land, which had been abandoned in its desolation by the hardy nomadic aborigines and now was one huge chequered garden. This morning Bony was proud that he was half white and wistfully longed to escape the environment of the mid-race for the upper plane of the white.

What is left unsaid? First of course that the Queensland and West Australian police forces were and are hotbeds of institutionalised racism, in which Bony could not possibly have survived. That in the Depression when all workers (in this town) other than returned servicemen had been sacked, there would have been active hostility to an Aboriginal man employed ‘out of turn’. That the Noongar people didn’t abandon their land, they were forced off it. That it was illegal to serve alcohol to Bony unless he produced his citizenship papers. That most white women wouldn’t have danced with Bony however well he spoke.

Michelle/Adventures in Biography and Sue/Whispering Gums, with posts on respectively Maxine Beneba’s The Hate Race (here) and the Boundless ‘multicultural’ festival (here) earlier this week, have also been discussing who should speak for Indigenous people and perhaps, how should white authors speak about Indigenous people. Whether Upfield was right or wrong to write in the way he did all those years ago I’m not sure. Certainly his heart was in the right place, as they say. I think he is still worth reading, but critically. I don’t read anything unquestioningly any more, but questioning is doubly important in this fraught area of race relations.

 

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Sunrise, Burracoppin, 2 Nov. 17 (looking south from highway over former railway easement and Goldfields pipeline to hotel)

Arthur W. Upfield, Mr Jelly’s Business, first published 1937. Audio version, Bolinda, 2012, read by Peter Hosking. My library’s paper copy was published in 2013 by Read How You Want which I think must be print-on-demand.

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15 thoughts on “Mr Jelly’s Business, Arthur Upfield

  1. Thanks for the mention Bill. As with Maigret, I loved the TV show of Bony but never did read the books, though my family did. My sense is that we can’t judge the past on present attitudes, but we can judge on humanity. So if a past writer was well-intentioned but didn’t understand what we now understand, I think we can cut them a little slack, but if they treated “other” (Indigenous people, Chinese people, whomever) as lesser, as not warranting dignity and respect from the writer, then that’s another matter. I would accept though if contemporary indigenous readers didn’t want to cut them any slack at all, since their families lived those times and were the butts of good intentions (as well as bad).

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    • I hope you give Bony a try one day when you’re running up to Sydney or whatever. I find him very relaxing, like Phryne.
      White Australians were so unthinkingly racist, against Aborigines, against the Chinese, even when well meaning, that it is often necessary to read around those bits. But it wouldn’t do to be unaware. (I know there’s plenty of racism around today, from the prime minister down, but I don’t think any of our writers are, except by carelessness).

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      • Good idea Bill. I need to get into one of those online audio services I think for our road trips. I have some audio CDs here but we are working through them pretty quickly. I know I could use the library but that’s just another commitment to go to, to then go back to return them, and I seem to be out and about too much as it is. Whinge, whinge.

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      • Despite having nbn fibre to the premises, I still rely on my library for audio books. The main reason being the usb port in my truck radio is for music. Maybe one day I’ll wifi books from my phone but not yet.

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      • Yes, we have an old car with no really useful connections for our devices, except that we can charge them through a charger connected to the cigarette lighter. This is one of the reasons we are waiting for our dear old Subaru Forester to give up the ghost!! When that happens is probably the time I’ll look to those digital audiobook services.

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  2. Bill, you have done here exactly what a good teacher would do, that is, explain the reasons why this book is worth reading, and discuss its flaws which affect how we interpret it now, including most importantly calling attention to what is unsaid.

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  3. I love that I’m accumulating knowledge about Australia by reading your posts. I remember the rabbit fence from the book about the kids who were kidnapped and ran away, you mention the Noongar folks frequently, etc. Are Noongar indigenous people from a certain part of Australia, or are they all over?

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      • Melanie, next time you are on my blog and you have time, the page Aboriginal Australia begins with a map showing the location of all the major language groups (if you go further you will see each group consists of a number of sub groups – 14 I think, for the Noongar). Th runaway girls were being held near Perth but came from the Martu much further north. The Martu belong to the Western Desert group which covers the deserts of western central Australia.

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  4. I discovered the Bony books by chance in a second hand bookshop back in my uni days in Wagga (30 yrs ago). I loved the first one so much, I hunted down the rest over the next couple of years. At the time I was surprised by Upfield’s respect and obvious affection for his characters. I was used to thinking that everyone ‘back then’ was racist and therefore treated indigenous peoples badly. It was an eye-opening experience to see the obvious racism at play in the world around as seen from the POV a kind-hearted writer who obviously didn’t subscribe to that way of thinking but was still a product of his times.

    Now you’ve made me wonder if I’d still enjoy these books as much as I did when I was 21.

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    • Thankyou for coming back to look at my posts on Bony and Maigret. I am developing the opinion that despite the overt racism of the times, before WWII, there was still a strong undercurrent of what we would recognize as liberal views, right back to the first fleet.

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