As an adolescent living with his grandmother in England, Arthur W. Upfield, under the name “Arker-William” Upfield, wrote several lengthy manuscripts—his unpublished Yellow Peril series. After his father sent him to Australia, he wandered the continent for twenty years doing odd jobs before attempting his first serious novel, The Barrakee Mystery, at the instigation of friends. The book lacked focus, however, so Upfield attempted a straight thriller, The House of Cain (1928), but his characters were still flat and the theme melodramatic. Then, while working as a cook at Wheeler’s Well in New South Wales, Upfield stopped to talk to Leon Wood, a tracker with whom he had spent five months patrolling hundreds of miles of fence as a boundary rider. This incident enabled Upfield to give focus and direction to his life as a crime and mystery writer.
The Barrakee Mystery
Wood’s father was white and his mother Aborigine. Intelligent and widely read, he gave Upfield a copy of a biography of Napoleon Bonaparte. Using Leon as a model, Upfield then created the main protagonist for most of his thirty-odd novels, Detective Inspector Napoleon “Bony” Bonaparte of the Queensland Police. Upfield then rewrote The Barrakee Mystery around Bony, and his career as a mystery writer began. Bony would be his detective hero, and the Australian landscape he knew so well would constitute the background for his entire fictional world.
Upfield, who claimed Hemingway as his favorite author, was fascinated by everything he saw, and he saw the whole of Australia. In Bony and the White Savage (1961) and The Widows of Broome (1950), he wrote about western Australia; he wrote about an area near the Northern Territory in The Will of the Tribe (1962), Queensland in The Bone Is Pointed (1938), and many sites in and around New South Wales, including the ocean off the southeastern coast in The Mystery of Swordfish Reef (1939). Upfield’s style reflects Hemingway’s simple vocabulary and sense of the concrete world. Of Upfield Betty Donaldson says, “When he describes a forest fire we can feel the heat, hear the crackle of the flames and sense the terror and desperation of the fleeing animals.”
Though he works within the conventions of the classical detective story, which require certain presuppositions about society, law, and morality that are distinctively English, Upfield introduces a certain originality into the genre by examining the relationship between different cultures. In Australia these are the modern, urban culture of the coastal regions, the white culture of the Outback (diverse in national backgrounds), and the ancient Aboriginal culture in various stages of assimilation into the dominant white culture.
In Upfield’s novels, Detective Napoleon Bonaparte mediates the interaction of these cultures. Himself a half-caste, he is able to represent the customs, beliefs, and powers of Aboriginal culture. Yet as the agent of a national police authority, Bony also represents the thrust of modernization with its centralized authority, bureaucratic administration, and hierarchy of educated expertise. He uses his Aboriginal intuition and civilized authority to penetrate the truth of crime and restore the harmony of society disrupted by violence.
As a detective writer, Upfield is less a social novelist than one rooted in nature, and critics compare his literary skills to those of Cooper and Melville because the natural world, so vast and powerful, must somehow be transcended or overcome. Like Cooper’s Natty Bumppo, Bony represents the best in the primitive and civilized worlds, but unlike Cooper’s mythic hero, Bony is real,...
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