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.