Friday, April 8, 2011

Adventure classics – Murder Australian style

The Sands of Windee
by Arthur Upfield
When a crime novel opens with the statement “Detective-Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte, of the Queensland police, was walking along a bush track on his way to Windee Station,” we expect the writer either to succeed astonishingly well or to fail grandly.  Australian Arthur Upfield’s 1931 story of how his half-aboriginal detective solved the case of a murder whose victim’s body had completely disappeared succeeded all too well, as Upfield learned when called to testify about an actual crime he had discussed with the murderer-to-be while researching his mystery plot.

Upfield’s father sent him to Australia from his native England after the young man failed to qualify as a real estate agent.  And after traveling across more real estate than he’d ever dreamed of as a boundary rider on the 2,000-mile long “rabbit-proof fence” in Western Australia.  Upfield had already written a few novels in the late 1920’s , but he needed an extraordinary plot to compete for readers’ attention in that golden age of detective stories.  What he needed, he decided, was not a body in the library puzzle of the sort beloved of authors such as Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers, but a mystery without a body, in the open spaces of the Australian Outback.

Upfield discussed methods of destroying bodies with several acquaintances before The Sands of Windee was published.  Unfortunately, a fellow boundary rider known as Snowy Rowles didn’t wait to read the book to learn how a murder can be investigated in the absence of a corpse before using Upfield’s methods.  Rowles was later hanged for the murder of one of the victims.

Real-life entanglements aside, Upfield’s true triumphs were the creation of Bony, a character brilliant, vain, heroic and complex enough to merit comparison to the Little Corporal; and in the sympathetic depiction of the culture of indigenous people in Australia.  Because what, after the local police have closed the case at Windee as a simple disappearance, prompts Bony to demand its reinvestigation as a murder?

Upfield writes:

Bony reached into his unrolled swag and produced a copy of Sergeant Morris’s picture taken with a cheap camera, and handed it to his interrogator.

“Look well!” he cried softly.  “You see the car.  What else?”

“Nothing but the trees in the background,” the sergeant admitted.

“Ah!  But cannot you see in that near tree a bleached sheep-bone attached to a bundle of sticks arranged like a woman’s fan?. . .   That is a blackfellows’ sign which reads:  ‘Beware of Spirits!  A white man was killed here!’”

(The Sands of Windee is available at and but I have not found a copy of the 2009 Australian television movie “3 Acts of Murder,” based on the Rowles case.  It was shown in the U.S. at the 2010 Nashville Film Festival.  Anyone know of a source?  Next week:  The Maltese Falcon, and how an overage Communist joined the U.S. Army and received burial in Arlington National Cemetery.)

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