"How did you manage to rise so high in your Police Department? I am not being impertinent, I do assure you. You must have met many obstacles, extraordinary hurdles, and I sense a story far more irresistible than that of errand boy to millionaire."
"My beginning was subordinate to that of the errand boy," replied Bony. "I was found beneath a sandalwood tree, found in the arms of my mother, who had been clubbed to death for breaking a law. Subsequently, the matron of the Mission Station to which I was taken and reared found me eating the pages of Abbotts's Life of Napoleon Bonaparte. The matron possessed a peculiar sense of humour. The result - my name."
--The Battling Prophet, by Arthur W. Upfield (1956)
I can think of few characters in 20th century detective fiction who are quite as original as Detective Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte of the Queensland, Australia, Police Department. As my contribution to the "Heroes & Villains" theme week under way at Jen's Book Thoughts blog, I'd like to introduce him more fully.
What sets this Australian detective apart from so many other fictional detectives? To begin, he is half-white, half-Aborigine, combining the best talents and skills of both races. From his unknown white father, he inherits the logic and other skills that enable him to excel at the formal requirements of police work. From his mother's people (and he is a full initiate in her tribe), he inherits his knowledge of the bush, the Australian outback, and the ability to read the virtually invisible clues left by man and nature that allow him to survive and to track his quarry over the countless miles of brush and desert that make up inland Australia. According to his author, Arthur W. Upfield, Bony, as he is known to his friends, was modeled after a real person, a half-Aborigine named Tracker Leon, who served as a highly skilled tracker for the police.
If Bony's mixed-race heritage contributes to his success as a detective, it is viewed with suspicion by some readers today, who feel that Upfield was far too condescending to the Aborigine people. I think this is unfair. Much of what Upfield wrote about Bony and about other Aboriginal characters during the middle third of the twentieth century shows the author's tremendous respect and affection for that ancient culture. The occasional bigot who shows up in these stories is usually put down quite successfully by Bony and others.
According to Kees de Hoog's book, When Bony Was There (2011), some time before finishing college (where he received a Master's degree), "A grave disappointment in love sent Bony back to the bush. For a year he ran wild among the aborigines of his mother's tribe." Undoubtedly, that interlude also gave him a chance to perfect the tracking and bush skills that would stand him in such good stead when he became a detective. Bony later married a young woman named Marie, who, like him, was half white and half Aborigine, and the couple had three sons. In his early days, Bony also spent a great deal of time working as an itinerant laborer on various ranches and stations in the outback - a background which makes it easy for him, as a detective, to disguise himself among working men and women as an ordinary laborer, which allows him to carry on conversations with witnesses who would normally never dream of talking to the police.
It's worth noting, also, that Bony - and Upfield - share a belief in the reality of certain kinds of magic, such as the ability of Aboriginal chiefs and shamans to communicate over long distances telepathically, and in the mental spell-casting which could cause offenders to wither and die, a ritual called "pointing the bone." One of the best of the Bony books is called The Bone is Pointed, in which Bony himself narrowly escapes what I suppose can only be called death by witchcraft. (I reviewed that one for the Classic Mysteries podcast a few years back, and you can listen to that review by clicking here.)
Yet in this exotic atmosphere, Bony flourishes. For the most part, he gets to choose his own cases, showing disdain for common murders. He prefers the cold cases, the ones, often set in the bush, where there are no apparent clues, where the trail has gone cold over a period of months. To Bony, his greatest ally is time, his greatest virtue, patience. He infuriates his boss in the police, Colonel Spender, but the colonel knows that Bony is probably his most valuable investigator, a man who has never failed to "finalize" a case. The colonel puts up with a great deal from Bony - but his faith in his star detective is always vindicated.
In every book, Detective Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte makes it a point to invite almost everyone he meets to call him "Bony," as all of his friends, his boss, his wife, even his sons do. I think any of us would have been honored to call Bony our friend.