THE LAKE FROME MONSTER.
First published – (UK) Heinemann – 1966
Second Publisher – (UK) Pan Books – 1969
This Edition – Pan Books – Second Printing – 1970
Copyright – Bonaparte Holdings – 1966
Arthur Upfield died on February 13th 1964. He never completed this novel, but did leave it virtually complete in manuscript form. This manuscript was completed and revised from his copious notes by JL Price and Mrs Dorothy Strange.
Lake Frome is situated near the North Eastern corner of South Australia about 100 miles south south west from Cameron’s Corner which marks the border between Queensland, New South Wales and South Australia. The lake is basically a dry salt pan, and rarely fills, and even then only partly, and with brackish water from inflows of Rivers when they are in flood. The lake is around 60 miles long and 25 miles wide. It is situated in the Strezlecki Desert and at its closest point is 50 miles from the New South Wales border.
Arthur was actually working in and around Lake Frome not long after he came to Australia, prior to the First Great War. He actually patrolled the long fence in the region with only a camel as his pack animal, so where Upfield writes here, he does from experience he himself had almost 50 years prior to the writing of this novel.
Upfield is accurate in his description of this fence he describes here. That vermin proof fence follows the New South Wales border to a point almost level with the southernmost shore of the lake itself, where it turns at a right angle into South Australia. It then moves inland a distance of 100 miles or so, the fence itself being much longer as it does not follow one single continuous straight line.
There is also another vermin proof fence that follows the western shoreline of the lake itself. It is along one of these vermin proof fences that this novel is set, and most likely the one that is on the border itself, as, later in the book, Bony mentions that he toils all day pitching buckbush over the fence into New South Wales.
The title concerns a camel that has gone feral and is very wild, and considered to be quite dangerous.
The aborigines in the area are quite scared of it, and the camel itself is used as a weapon to keep some sort of controlled peace in the area.
This use of camels and working on the fence line ties in with work that Upfield himself did. His use of camels has been written of in other Bony novels. The camel was imported into Australia in 1866 by Sir Thomas Elder and proved to be one of the better introduced animals. The Afghans were mostly used as handlers, but they proved to be better than horses when pack animals were needed during the exploring of the vast continent.
Here, in this novel, a freelance photographer is found shot dead near the fence.
There seems to be no motive for the murder and the local Police are at a loss trying to solve the case.
Bony is called in to investigate and he works under the cover of a man seeking work along the fence line. He uses the name Edward Bonnay. As part of applying for the job, Bony is asked if he has ever done fence work before, and Bony says that he worked the 164 mile fence in WA, a reference to when he worked on the fence as part of his under cover work in ‘Mr Jelly’s Business’.
Weapons are also discussed in some detail in this novel. The weapon used to kill the photographer, Maidstone, was found to have been a Winchester point forty four.
Bony is asked if he prefers this weapon or the Savage, and there is a discussion as to the worth of the Savage, it being a much more accurate weapon, but the cartridges cost more. The section of fence that Bony is put to work on is only eleven miles, but the work is very tough.
There are numerous pages where Upfield builds characters, most taken from his own life and travels, and most with very colourful names.
The work itself is described as being extremely arduous at times, and quite relaxed at others.
It seems that even though he only has eleven miles to work on, the work can be continuous, especially in periods of high wind. The dried buckbush rolls along until it comes up against the fence, where it collects and builds up. The sand can now take purchase on the buckbush and covers the dry bush building up along sections of the fence. The sand now builds a wall and the fence is now not a fence but a sandhill that the rabbits and other vermin can crawl over onto the other side, the fence, now nonexistent and providing no barrier at all.
Bony, as part of his work has to keep the fence clear of this buckbush by forking it over onto the other side. At other times he has to repair the fence itself when the fence has been undermined allowing the animals to crawl under it.
The work is arduous and he meets many different characters, all providing him with some clues along the way. It seems that there may have been a hint of cattle duffing, (referred to in the U.S. as rustling) but Bony thinks that this is too flimsy a motive for the killing.
Some of the locals and other men working on the fence are suspicious of Bony, mainly because he seems to be asking too many questions.
There is mention of life away from the fence when Bony is talking with one of the other men. He talks of life at ‘The Hill’, meaning Broken Hill. He also says that life changed after six o’clock closing stopped and the pubs stayed open until 10 PM.
There is mention made of Lake Eyre being chosen as the site for an attempt on the world land speed record, a direct reference to the attempt by Donald Campbell in the 1960′s.
Bony meets up with a couple of the wild aborigines in the area, and after showing them his cicatrices, they seem none the wiser, and they promptly disappear. He is a little suspicious that they may be being used by the perpetrators of the crime to warn him off the case, suspicious that he might be working for the Police, helping to investigate the murder.
Bony actually comes across the monster when it charges at him. All looks bad for Bony as he can’t get to his rifle in time to shoot the beast, about which numerous tales have led him to believe that it would have killed him once in his sights.
The beast however pulls up short of Bony, and using his ingenuity, Bony slips a nose line over the beast, and then finds that it becomes almost docile.
All it wanted was to be well treated by humans and to have the company of other fellow camels.
The monster seems to have been tamed, and now becomes part of Bony’s team, now comprising three camels.
Each new task seems to be fraught with danger, but the camel has reverted to being completely tame, at every turn, and the animal then becomes just another camel member of the team.
Bony spreads around numerous rumours about his ideas on the murder, one claiming that it may not have been a murder per se, but just an unfortunate accident when an aborigine misdirected a shot from his Winchester at dusk, thinking he was shooting at an animal come to drink from the bore, later finding that he had, in fact shot a man, and now unwilling to come forward to admit to the shooting for fear of going to jail for life. This spreading of rumours again raises suspicions, and Bony finds himself being actively cast out by some of the locals, Bony thinking that this ostracism is a further clue, in that those now looking to be against him are in fact those with something to hide.
Bony thinks further that these men have got their friends amongst the local aborigines to point the bone at Bony.
Bony is acutely aware that the boning may actually be taking place and here Upfield again describes the process in great detail. Bony is wary enough to keep all his personal detritus to himself, knowing that the aborigines will collect this stuff and use it against him. He further knows that the process, once started will grind on to its inexorable end, so he decides to choke it off before it starts. He silently creeps up on the scene of the boning ceremony, as only Bony can, and watches while the three aborigines concentrate over the small fire. He throws a packet of fire crackers into the fire which consequently explode and destroy the concentration of the protagonists, ridiculing their ceremony as only he has the right to do, and ensuring that any further attempt is now nullified.
In a further attempt to distract Bony, his camels are ‘kidnapped’ and taken a long distance from his camp.
He has to track the animals and return to his camp, this task taking a day that he cannot spare in his investigation.
The ‘monster’ himself acts as Bony’s eyes in the back of his head, keeping Bony aware that they are being tracked by someone, the only one aware of this tracking being the ‘monster’. During this tracking of Bony, he becomes aware of it, and backtracking comes across an aborigine.
The ‘monster’ then reverts to its former type and charges at them, and both Bony and the aborigine end up high in the branches of a tree.
Bony uses the inherent danger that the ‘monster’ provides as a spur to gain information from the aborigine.
Following their escape, Bony saddles up the ‘monster’, and aware that the case is starting to break sets off to bring matters to a head.
Along the way, Bony is shot at, and he draws his point forty five revolver. (He does not have his trusted automatic with him this time.)
He has to go back to work on the fence line and toils away at the job in hand for a time, aware that he still has to work at his job, this still having to be done, even though the murder investigation should seem to have precedence.
Some of the other fence line workers are now quite aware that Bony, if not a Policeman himself, is in collusion with them. He is ostracised even further, and now is having them actively working against him.
To bring things further to a head, he resigns his job on the fence, and seeks work with an overseer at one of the cattle stations, Bony, however, aware that this is one of the men who has been actively working against him.
Bony questions him, and Levvey, the overseer, becomes decidedly suspicious. Bony draws his revolver as Levvey goes for his rifle. Bony is trumped when a second man, who is in collusion with Levvey steals up behind him with another rifle. It seems all is now lost for Bony.
It transpires that the man has assumed the identity of Levvey is in actual fact the cattle duffer himself. They are stealing cattle from the owner of the property, Commander Joyce and selling them in lots of 300 at 20 pounds sterling a head.
They have only one more stealing trip ahead of them, before the two of them have plotted to get away, split the money two ways, and then retire, leaving no clues.
The man pretending to be Levvey killed the real Levvey, and took over the job long term in an effort to steal the cattle, thus becoming rich in the process.
The freelance photographer, Maidstone, saw these two men herding the cattle and took a photograph of the scene.
The man pretending to be Levvey approached, asking him who he was and what he was doing. He introduced himself as Levvey, and, unfortunately, Maidstone knew the real Levvey from Sydney, and twigged to their plan. The bogus Levvey had no other recourse but to shoot him.
Now that the story was all solved, it looked to be curtains for Bony, and the two men take him outside to kill him.
At this point in time, and quite fortuitously, the monster turns up, charging at the group, crashing into the two men and disarming them. In fear, they then bolt, just as the main force of Police turn up, a classic case of the cavalry to the rescue.
This is another of Upfield’s beautifully crafted stories. While it was completed from his manuscript and notes, it lacks none of the polish Upfield may have added before finally submitting it for publishing.
In Jessica Hawke’s book, ‘Follow My Dust’, Upfield explains that he knew of an actual case similar to this of a rogue camel. It seems that the camel remembers the person who has maltreated it, and is actively hostile towards that person. This is another case where Upfield uses actual experience and incorporates it into one of his novels.