The murder of an Australian drifter - an itinerant laborer, called a "swagman" - might very well have gone unsolved, had it not been for the sharp eye of Detective Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte, known to his friends as "Bony." He saw, in a photo of the murder scene, a cryptic clue that nobody else had noticed. And the result is the story of "Death of a Swagman," by Arthur W. Upfield, featuring this most unusual of detectives. It is the subject of this week's audio review on the Classic Mysteries podcast, and you can listen to the entire review by clicking here.
Between 1928 and 1966, Upfield wrote 29 books featuring Bony, whose amazing mix of skills inherited from his white father and his Aborigine mother have made him a detective with a perfect record at "finalizing" difficult cases. Bony picks up clues that other detectives have missed - as he does in this case. He delights in working in unusual ways. In "Death of a Swagman," for instance, he arrives in the small town where his investigation will take place and immediately gets himself arrested by insulting the local police sergeant. After his very public arrest, he reveals his identity to the sergeant and arranges to have himself locked up in jail for 14 days - assigned to paint the fence around the jail. As a result, he is able to sit outside painting, as a simple itinerant laborer himself who has run afoul of those nasty police - so, as Bony explains it to the sergeant, "instead of everyone holding their horses in the presence of Detective Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte, they will talk quite freely with poor old Bony, the latest victim of the ber-lasted per-leece."
"Death of a Swagman" finds Bony solving a couple of murders - and interacting with some memorable characters; he is thoroughly charmed by the police sergeant's eight-year-old daughter, Rose Marie, who plays a critical role in solving the case. It is also fair to say that the motive for murder here is one of the most unusual in any mystery I have ever read.
Bony is a fascinating character and a perennial favorite of mine. He's my entry in the "Heroes & Villains" [Updated to add link] Theme Week tournament under way this week at the Jen's Book Thoughts blog. Later this week, I'll have a more detailed post here providing more background about Detective Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte - who he is, how he got that way, and how he works. Most of the books featuring Bony, alas, are out of print, but some - including "Death of a Swagman" - are available as audio books from Audible. If you have never met him, you should do so. He's one of the most memorable, and, I think, likeable detectives in mystery fiction.