From where I live, halfway around the world from Australia, I am fascinated by the place, by its history and its people - at least as Australia was during the first half of the 20th century, when Arthur W. Upfield was writing his novels about the exploits of Detective Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte, a member of the Queensland police force. Bony, as he is known to his many friends, is an amazing character. The fact that he is of mixed race - half white, half Aboriginal - is critical to his personality and his success. For a long while, Upfield's books were largely out of print. That's no longer the case. Many are now available again, either in paper or in e-book editions. His family continues to bring these extraordinary books back, with a website of their own devoted to Upfield's works. Back in the early days of the podcast, I reviewed The Bachelors of Broken Hill, originally published in 1950. Here's what I said about it (as always, some minor editing has been done):
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In the Australian town of Broken Hill, somebody has been putting cyanide into the drinks of elderly bachelors. Is it a homicidal lunatic? Or is there a method to this madness? That’s the problem facing Detective Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte in The Bachelors of Broken Hill.
Detective Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte is the creation of Arthur W. Upfield. Born in England, Upfield lived all his adult life in Australia, where he worked in a variety of jobs – from a cowhand to a gold miner – before settling down to write more than 40 detective novels.
By today’s standards, Inspector Bonaparte – Bony to his friends – is rather politically incorrect. Half white, half Australian aborigine, he combines what Upfield saw as the best of both cultures. His knowledge of outback Australia is phenomenal, and his detective skills are unparalleled. But we do have to read Upfield’s novels with an acceptance of Australian racial attitudes in the first half of the 20th century – and remember that, at the time, Upfield was considered something of a champion of aborigine culture.
Bony is a top-notch detective, with nearly infinite patience – a quality which has enabled him to reach a successful conclusion to ever case he has ever consented to tackle. He considers time his most powerful ally; “Never race time,” he is always telling his colleagues, “Make time an ally, for Time is the greatest detective that ever was or ever will be.”
But in The Bachelors of Broken Hill, Bony doesn’t seem to have much time. Two murders have already happened before Bony is sent to Broken Hill. All the clues are stale. Worse, an incredibly incompetent detective has trampled all over the clues and witnesses, making the job of sorting out useful information virtually impossible. And Bony knows that there will be more murders until, and unless, the killer is caught.
Part of the problem is that the witnesses all agree that there was an unknown woman near each of the men at the time he was killed – but nobody saw her put anything into their drinks, and the witnesses seem to be describing completely different women at each of the crime scenes.
Inspector Bonaparte doesn’t hesitate to use unusual methods and strange allies in his battles against crime, and that is certainly the case in The Bachelors of Broken Hill. One of his most useful allies is a visiting burglar, a man whom Bony happens to know, and who is forced to help Bony by doing a little housebreaking to get some vital information. As is often the case, Bony presses the local police force into service as well – sometimes quite against official procedure.
You must understand that Inspector Bonaparte is routinely fired from his job by his superiors – and invariably reinstated and rehired after he successfully concludes another case. He refuses to be rushed or pushed into taking steps he believes to be unwise. And, as a general rule, he is proved right – though there are plenty of times when he makes serious mistakes.
One of the reasons why I am so fond of Bony – and of Arthur Upfield’s books – is that Upfield is wonderful at describing characters and places. He does so quite economically. In one of his other books, for example, he introduces a female character with this sentence: “Betty Morse quickened a man’s eyes, which is different to stirring his pulses.” I think that’s a remarkable way of defining a character’s personality.
And speaking of defining personality, what do we think of a police detective – Bony, in fact – who connives with a known burglar to allow the thief to keep some of his ill-gotten gains, although he does make him return money stolen from a couple of innocent victims. But not the money he took from a bookmaker in Sydney. Talking to Jimmy the burglar, who has been pressed into service to help solve the case, Jimmy asks Bony:
“What do I get in return for all this agony?”
“No restitution of that Sydney bookmaker’s ill-gotten gains,” Bony said.
“Hell! You still rememberin’ that?”
Bony nodded and poured tea.
“There are,” he said, “many honest bookmakers. Perhaps you don’t know that that particular bookmaker dabbles in blackmail.”
“I do know but that didn’t worry me.”
That exchange tells you a fair amount about both of these characters – and Bony’s sometimes cavalier determination to ignore what perhaps we may call minor irregularities in the pursuit of justice.
I think Detective Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte is a delightful character, and I certainly hope you’ll take the time and trouble to meet him. Just like all his friends, you’ll be calling him "Bony” in no time.
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To listen to the original podcast, please click here.
Next week: Trent's Last Case, by E. C. Bentley