Cake in the Hat Box, Arthur Upfield

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Coming out of Albury last trip, west along the Murray Valley Highway, which follows the river along the Victorian side, I stopped at Strathmerton to check my load and found myself opposite both an op shop and a patisserie. The combination was irresistible and I soon found myself with a cauliflower pie and another Western Australian Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte novel.

Cake in the Hat Box (1955) is set in the Kimberleys, in WA’s North West, rugged, tropical cattle grazing country. Unlike Mr Jelly’s Business (review) which is set in a real town where the author worked in the 1930s, the setting for this story is a fictional settlement, Agar’s Lagoon, maybe based on Durack which marks the turn-off from the ‘Great Northern Highway’, in those post WWII days a primitive dirt track, to the port of Wyndham.

I’ve only been to the very north of WA a couple of times – something I hope to rectify in the coming years – but the descriptions of country sound authentic and Upfield’s ADB entry says, “In 1948 he led a 5000-mile (8047 km) expedition through the Kimberleys, Western Australia, for the Australian Geographical Society.”

The murder at the centre of this novel is that of a policeman found dead in his Landrover on a remote road. His Aboriginal companion (‘black tracker’), Jackie Musgrave, who is missing, is the initial suspect. However, Boney believes that he is dead and explicitly leaves his murder to be discovered and punished by his fellows, the Musgrave mob who live to the south, in the desert. The Aborigines around Agar’s are of a different language group and ‘belong’ to the various stations – one of the principal characters says that her Aborigines are as much the property of the station as the cattle.

The AITSIS map (here) shows just how many language groups there are in the East Kimberley, and the book Two Sisters which I reviewed (here) some time ago gives an account of Aborigines, Walmajarri people, moving out of the desert, although a bit to the west of this story, and onto the stations.

I like Boney mysteries, and have listened to so many that I was unable to read this one without hearing the mellifluous Humphrey Bower in my head. However, as I have said before, Upfield is not free of the racism of his time, and that is particularly true of this story where the mainly white principal characters are interacting all the time with Aborigines.

Sam left the seaport of Wyndham on August 16th, his six-wheeler loaded with ten tons of stores for stations south of Agar’s Lagoon. For ten miles the track was almost level as it crossed the flats south of Wyndham, a ship sailing on a sea of grass as yellow and as tall as ripe wheat. Thereafter it proceeded up an ever-narrowing valley between flat-topped ranges sparsely covered with stunted scrub and armoured with red and grey granite. The ranges merged into a maze with walls a thousand feet high, and the surface of the track was of loose stone and slate, level at no place for more than ten feet.

Gotta love a good trucking quote! Later, an old station owner describes how he used a wagon drawn by 52 donkeys to get over the range. Sam discovers Constable Stenhouse who has been shot dead and reports the death in Agar’s, where fortuitously Boney has been held up on his way home from Broome to Queensland. Stenhouse, married to a local girl, had been a notorious wife beater:

‘Wife got knocked round a bit. She was only two hands high, and couldn’t take it. If she’d been my sister, Stenhouse would have been sitting dead in his jeep years ago.’

Though the speaker goes on:

‘Fair’s fair, I reckon. A good belting don’t do any woman any harm, but no woman is expected to take punches from a bloke like Stenhouse.’

In fact Stenhouse’s wife had died of her beatings some years earlier and now her brother, a cattleman, is the principal suspect for the murder of her husband. Boney does a tour of the neighbouring properties; the ‘Musgrave mob’, never seen except for their smoke signals, come looking for Jackie; we meet some interesting people, White and Black; and a conclusion is soon reached.

But to to return to my argument, the best you can say about Upfield’s views, here expressed by Boney, is “patronising”:

‘Those aborigines have many traits similar to dogs … They’re full of knowledge and helpful in their own country, and are nervous and suspicious when away from it. We feed them and clothe them and we bring them to understand enough of our language to communicate. They smoke our tobacco and ride our horses, many of them drive our cars and trucks, and are able to repair windmills and pumps.

‘Nevertheless, they retain their tribal customs and cling to inherited instincts and convictions. They are loyal to white men living for a long time in their own locality, and suspicious of all others… Be patient. A thousand years are as nothing in this timeless land, and when the last aboriginal sinks down to die, despite the veneer imposed on him by our civilization, he will be the same man as were his forebears ten thousand years ago.

After that, should you read it? My answer is a qualified yes.

The mystery is well done, with the right number of red herrings, and Boney is an engaging character. The landscape of the Kimberleys is spectacular and Upfield describes it well, as he does the male-dominated drinking culture. Ernestine Hill provides similar descriptions, a couple of decades earlier, in her travelogue, The Timeless Land, which no doubt Upfield had read, and she actually hitched a lift with (famous station owner) Michael Durack in this area. Northern Australia is still racist, in a mostly off-hand way (ie. murder is now frowned on, though there are still ‘deaths in custody’) so the depiction of White attitudes is not so wide of the mark. The description of Aboriginal activities is probably accurate, and to a large extent, sympathetic, but Upfield’s descriptions of Aboriginal motivations are inherently racist and should be discounted.

 

Arthur Upfield, Cake in the Hat Box, first pub. 1955. My edition (pictured) Pan Books, London, 2nd printing 1966.

The Dry, Jane Harper

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In the summer of 1994 the national Scout jamboree was in Perth and for those scouts unable to make the trip Victorian scouts held a smaller “jamborette” at Green Lake in the Mallee, coincidentally, adjacent to one of the three blocks farmed by my grandfather and after him by my uncle, only four years my senior, Les.

The Mallee is sandy country on a limestone base, flat except for low sandhills lightly bound by eucalypt scrub and wheat stubble. In bad years the cleared soil blows in the wind. During the Depression and again in 1984 the prevailing hot summer northerlies created huge dust storms blanketing Melbourne 400 km away with red Mallee dust.

Green Lake is (was) not natural, just a shallow depression in low eucalypt and acacia bushland, fed by the channel system which brought water up from the Grampians. Gone now I hear, converted to pipes. We had huge family picnics there every summer, all Granddad’s brothers and sisters and all their children, and us four boys, the first of the grandchildren.

On the Friday before the jamborette I drove Gee, an enthusiastic scout, and two of her friends up from Melbourne, to stay overnight at Les’s before going on to the camp. Up the Calder Highway through Bendigo, through Charlton, Culgoa where Grandma’s brother, Uncle George  (Cox) bred champion clydesdales and you could sometimes see huge colts gambolling clumsily by the highway, to Berriwillock. Turn left, past the little weatherboard Anglican church, where mum’s younger sister was married while we boys sat outside in the car being fed sausage rolls by the church ladies, out the Woomelang road, turn right at Uncle Bert’s – ‘Wheatlands’, my great grandmother’s home farm – then left again before the bush block with scrubby native pines and bulokes where we’d get our Christmas trees, past the Austerberry’s. Dirt roads now, hard packed sand, graded smooth, pulling up at Les’s side gate, padlocked, round to the front, up the half mile drive to the old familiar farmhouse surrounded by peppercorns, from Brazil I think, not native but endemic throughout all of Australia’s wheat farming country, and a few sugar gums.

The first time I had made this trip for 30 years, the first (and last) time ever as a driver, but ingrained indelibly in my mind by 15 years of school holiday after school holiday, sitting behind my father, 3 boys across the back seat of the Prefect, the FJ, the EK, our first new car, baby B4 in the front between mum and dad. Granddad and Grandma did their shopping in Sea Lake but went to church in Berriwillock, my uncles played football in the green and gold, and once memorably we went to a gymkhana there where Grandma and all the other ladies chased a greased pig.

Three of Dad’s dozen or so schools were in the Mallee, the first, Sea Lake as I wrote recently, but then Underbool west of Ouyen where B2 was born and from 1961-63, Murrayville, further west again and so we would drive, in hundred degree heat in summer, 68 miles across to Ouyen then 80 miles down the Calder Highway to Sea Lake. Just mallee scrub, paddocks of wheat and oats, paddy melons and tumbleweeds. Identifying and counting cars to pass the endless hours – weren’t all hours endless back then.

Oh, the book review. You really should stop now or jump over to Emma at Book Around the Corner (here). Emma enjoys Harper’s crime fiction and writes a sensible review, which is more than you will get from me.

The setting of The Dry (2016) is a fictitious small sheep farming community, Kiewarra, though not so small it doesn’t have a high school, “five hours from Melbourne”. The number of towns in Victoria that fit this definition is just two, Robinvale and Ouyen in the north-west, the Mallee. Five hours in any other direction takes you into NSW or SA.

Robinvale is on the Murray and has a twin town, Euston across the river. Farming is irrigation dependent – grapes and citrus. Which leaves Ouyen, to the west, semi-desert, mallee scrub country, wheat farming mostly but some sheep. Dry and flat, salt lakes, no rivers. Kiewarra on the other hand has a wide river which normally burbles and rushes along, a lookout hill with a 100m high cliff, and late in the story the bare “fields” which surround Kiewarra become dense bush, tinder dry, threatening to engulf the town with bushfire. Any descriptions are plain vanilla generic – houses, fields, trees, river (and yes “fields” really annoys me).

Even the title is annoying, “the Dry” in Australia is actually winter in the tropics. “The Drought” or “The Long Dry” would have been more accurate given that that is what Harper (or the marketing people who came up with the title) meant, but who am I to argue when sales have been so good.

As a crime fiction novel The Dry is not bad, though in a genre renowned for meticulous technical accuracy her ‘police procedural’ errors are probably unacceptable. But the story is well told and the characters engaging. I especially enjoyed the back and forth between twenty years ago and now, flagged by italic script in the book, but not of course in the reading. It’s the geography that makes me mad. You’d have to think that the closest Jane Harper has been to the Bush is the observation deck of the Rialto with a telescope and the only experience she has of drought and farming is the stories she’s read in the Melbourne Murdoch tabloid, the Herald-Sun.

When the Mallee was divided up for settlement one block was one square mile, 640 acres. These days mechanisation means that an average farm is at least five times that, yet a big farm in Kiewarra is 200 acres. No wonder the farmers are desperate. The basis of the novel is that the ongoing drought has led one farmer to a murder/suicide which his parents ask his Melbourne-based former school mate and Federal policeman to investigate. The school-mate, Falk, around whom Harper is building a series, was blamed for the death 20 years earlier of his friend Ellie who was found at the bottom of the river with stones in her pocket, and he and his father were run out of town.

By the end of the book both Ellie’s death and the deaths of the farming family are explained, with a few unexpected twists along the way, the tension builds nicely, and yes the treatment of Falk by his former townsfolk has a “Deliverance” feel to it. But. The title makes the claim that this is Australian writing in the long tradition of Bush Realism dating from before the Bulletin, Steele Rudd, Henry Lawson and Joseph Furphy, back to the mid-1800s and the women we discussed in Gen 1 Week. And it is a spurious claim. Harper has appropriated the tropes of Australian bush fiction to make a setting for her crime fiction and she has done it really, really badly.

 

Jane Harper, The Dry, Macmillan Audiobook, 2016. Read by Steve Shannahan

I knew someone else as well as Emma had reviewed it. Kim at Reading Matters writes: “Quite frankly, The Dry, is an astonishing debut. It’s an exceptional crime novel, one of the best I’ve read in years.”