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.
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.
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.