(1890*-1964) English-Australian mystery writer, who roamed in his youth the sub-continent working as a boundary-rider, cattle-drower, rabbit-trapper and station-manager. Upfield's famous hero is the Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte (or 'Bony', as he is known in the books familiarly), the son of an unknown white man and an aborigine mother. Bony is a gentleman and genius of criminal science, who has an M.A. degree from Brisbane University. In his work Bony frequently faces race prejudices but wins them with his wit and smile. Bony is fully aware of his talents and solves crimes confidently through patience.
'Every successful investigator owes much to Lady Luck,' he told Irwin. 'No investigator ever begins to be successful unless driven by curiosity. Luck, curiosity, plus a little inductive reasoning into the behavior of foxes and eagles, will raise any police recruit to the top of his department.' (from Cake in the Hat Box, 1954)
Arthur William Upfield was born in Gosport, Hampshire, as the son of a prosperous draper. On leaving school at the age of sixteen he was apprenticed to a firm of estate agents, but he failed the qualifying examination - partly because he spent all his time with writing unpublished manuscripts. His father sent him to Australia in 1911, so he would be less likely to bring disgrace to the family and he would have a new opportunity to seek his fortune. Upfield was fascinated by the wildness and freedom of the country. During the next ten years he travelled widely, working in odd jobs, such as a cook, a miner, cowhand, and a boundary rider for sheep stations, among other things. He learned of the Aboriginals, their culture, and this period gave him much of the material that he would later use in his fiction.
With the outbreak of World War I, Upfield joined the Australian Imperial Force. He fought at Gallipoli and in Egypt and France. He married in 1915 Ann Douglas, a nurse, and returned after the war to England, where he worked as a private secretary to an army officer. When his marriage failed Upfield sailed back to Australia in 1921. He continued his wandering and worked as an itinerant trapper and miner. In his youth Upfield had composed Sexton Blakeish thrillers and in the late 1920s he started again to plan career in literature. He took a job as cook at the isolated Wheeler's Well in New South Wales and spent his spare time in writing.
Upfield produced four novels, among them The House of Cain (1928), in which a hideout for murderers is run by an evil millionaire murderer. His serious novels did not sell well, but with Bony Bonaparte and The Barakee Mystery (1929) Upfield finally gained success. Upfield had made in the bush the acquaintance of Leon Wood, a half-caste Aborigine, a tracker employed by the Queensland Police. Upfied decided that he would change the white detective in The Barrakee Mystery to his friend and Wood became the model for his detective hero, Inspector Napoleon (Boney) Bonaparte. Bony was found when he was two-week-old infant beside his dead mother and brought to a mission school. There he was named after the subject of a book he was attempting to eat. His wife, the grey-eyed Marie, is also half-caste; they have three sons, Charles, Bob, and Ed. Bony has initiation marks on his back and chest, made with a sharp flint. He uses the skills of both his cultures, Aboriginal instincts and Western intelligence, and he likes tough cases which take him all over Australia.
"It was one of Bony's axioms that Time is the investigator's greatest ally." - "Bony felt the satin smoothness of wood, was reminded of the red sand of inland, the real heart of Australia which fools continue to claim dead." (from The New Shoe, 1952)
Bony was in 29 novels. J.B. Priestley wrote of Upfield: "If you like detective stories that are something more than puzzles, that have solid characters and backgrounds, that avoid familiar patterns of crime and detection, then Mr Upfield is your man." In The New Shoe (1952) an old craftsman makes a red-gum casket, which nearly becomes Bony's coffin, The Man of Two Tribes (1956) is a story of survival in the desolate Nullarbor Plains, and in Murder Down Under (1937) Bony is on holiday in western Australia and meets the bizarre Mr. Jelly, an amateur criminologist who collects portraits of murders. The critic H.R.F. Keating included in 1987 Upfield's THE SANDS OF WINDEE (1931) among the 100 best crime and mystery books ever published. In the story about a "perfect murder" Upfield invented a method to destroy carefully all evidence of the crime. His "Windee method" was used in a true-life crime, in which one of his friend was killed.
In Cake in the Hat Box (1954) Bony is caught between two systems of justice. Constable Stenhouse is found dead in his police jeep on a lonely dirt road. Bony soon realizes that he is not the only person searching for the feller who shot Stenhouse. Jacky Musgrave, the police tracker, is supposedly killed and the local aborigine tribe wants vengeance too. Bony tells Constable Irwin about aborigines: "They are loyal to white men living for a long time in their own locality, and suspicious of all others. It takes years of association and study to reach even the middle of the bridge spanning the gulf between them and us. 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."
Upfield's mysteries attracted also readers in England and America, but he was never admitted to the Australian literary establishment. Upfield's sympathetic characterization of the world of Aborigines and skillful depiction of the natural environment, bush fires, drought, sudden rains and dry lakes, gave his novel special quality which separated them from the usual style of hardboiled crime fiction. In later years, Upfield became prominent in the Australian Geological Society and led a major expedition in 1948 to northern and western parts of the country in 1948. - Upfield died in Bowral on February 13, 1964. The last Bony novel, The Lake Frome Monster (1966), was completed by J.L. Price and Dorothy Stange. Upfield's long-time companion, Jessica Hawke, published in 1957 a biography of the author entitled Follow My Dust!
*According to Upfield's birth certificate, he was born in 1890, not in 1888 as usually stated.
For further reading: World Authors 1900-1950, vol. 4. ed. by Martin Seymour-Smith and Andrew C. Kimmens (1996); A Checklist of Arthur Upfield by Christopher P. Stephens (1992); The Spirit of Australia Ray B. Browne (1988); Crime & Mystery: the 100 Best Books by H.R.F. Keating (1987); Follow by Dust! by Jessica Hawke (1957) - For further information: The Spirit of Australia: The Crime Fiction of Arthur W. Upfield - The Death of a Lake
Author's Website & Links
- The House of Cain 1926
- The Barakee Mystery 1928 (U.S. title: The Lure of the Bush)
- The Beach of Atonement 1930
- The Sands of Windee 1931
- A Royal Abduction 1932
- Gripped by Drought 1932
- The Muchison Murders c. 1934
- Wings above the Diamantina 1936 (U.S. title Wings above the Claypan)
- Mr. Jelly's Business 1937 (U.S. title Murder Down Under)
- Mystery of Swordfish Reef 1939
- Winds of Evil 1937
- The Bone is Pointed 1938
- Bushranger of the Skies 1940 (U.S. title No Footprints in the Bush)
- Death of a Swagman 1946
- The Devil's Steps 1946
- The Mountains Have a Secret 1948
- An Author Bites the Dust 1948
- The Widows of Broome 1950
- The Bachelors of Broken Hill 1950
- The Clue of the New Shoe 1952 (U.S. title The New Shoe, 1952)
- Venom House]] 1952
- Murder Must Wait 1953
- Death of a Lake 1954
- The Cake in the Hat Box 1954 (U.S. title Sinister Stones)
- Battling Prophet 1956
- The Man of Two Tribes 1956
- Bony Buys a Woman 1957 (U.S. title The Bushman Who Came Back)
- Bony and the Black Virgin 1959
- Bony and the Mouse 1959 (U.S. title Journey to the Hangman)
- Bony and the Kelly Gang 1960 (U.S. title Valley of Smugglers)
- Bony and the White Savage 1961 (U.S. title The White Savage)
- The Will of the Tribe 1962
- Madman's Bend 1963 (U.S. title The Body at Madman's Bend)
- Lake Frome Monster 1966 (completed by J.L. Price and Dorothy Strange)