Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Adventure classics -- Where's the body?

The Bone is Pointed

by Arthur W. Upfield


Forget high-tech. There will be no poring over mysterious skeletons, no DNA, not even fingerprints in The Bone is Pointed, Australian mystery writer Arthur W. Upfield’s 1938 story of a missing man, black magic, and a half Aboriginal detective improbably named Napoleon Bonaparte.

Upfield immigrated to Australia following the first World War and worked as a boundary rider on the famous “rabbit-proof fence” before he turned to writing in the late 1920’s. Unusual detectives were all the craze at the time, and I’m inclined to think Upfield didn’t quite know what he was getting into when he chose a racially-mixed background for his Queensland police inspector-detective. Given the prejudices of the time, the whole thing might have flopped. Improbably, the public loved Bonaparte (“Bony” to his friends), and as the series progressed, Upfield began to fill in his detective’s back story.

Found as an infant with his dead aboriginal mother, apparently abandoned by his white father, Bony will explain bit by bit his upbringing in a government boarding school designed to assimilate him into white Australian society and the choice he made, at great psychic anguish, not to return to his mother’s people.

Although it is a choice that often sets him at odds with both races, his defense against bigotry, cruelty, and just plain stupidity is simply to be the best in his field, to which he adds a heaping helping of humor.

“What are you, Indian or Australian?” asks Old Lacy, the rich white squatter (rancher) appalled that his demands to the authorities to find his missing employee, Jeffrey Anderson, have brought Bony to his door.

The detective’s reply: “I am Australian, at least on my mother’s side. It is better to be half-Australian than not Australian at all.. . . colour is no bar to a keen man’s progress, providing he has twice the ability of his rivals.”

Bony will need all those abilities to find the missing man, who rode out to patrol fences five months previously, and despite intensive searches, has never been seen since. Anderson is -- or was -- a vicious brute. Did he abscond? Or is he the victim of richly-deserved foul play? Nobody except the law and Old Lacy (whose reason for concern will be revealed in the book’s climax) really wants to find him.

Arraigned against Bony in this ice-cold case are the Gordon family, who fear the involvement of the Kalchut tribe they have protected from government interference for generations; Old Lacy’s daughter Diana, in love with young John Gordon; and the Kalchuts themselves, who practice a diabolically effective form of black magic against Bony.

Upfield’s impassioned plea for the freedom of Aboriginal people from government and religious interference resounds through The Bone is Pointed, even more than in others of the series. But his writing is at its best when he simply revels in the book's dramatic landscape and the clash of its bigger than life personalities.

Bony’s story would later become an 1970’s Australian television series, with the detective played, to outcries from the Aboriginal community, by white actor James
Laurenson in ludicrously heavy dark makeup (and a spelling change).  See

(Next Wednesday Adventure classics continues an April of mystery with another unlikely detective, Earl Derr Biggers’ Charlie Chan, in Keeper of the Keys.)

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