Arthur W Upfield – A Uniquely Australian Crime Fiction Writer

Posted on Wed 09/22/2010 by


Arthur W Upfield

Arthur W Upfield was an Australian Crime Fiction author. He wrote a series of books about one character, a uniquely Australian Detective called Napoleon Bonaparte. This name has a history that I will explain later, but was always shortened to Bony.

That character, Bony, was what was termed, in a time long before political correctness, a half caste, that is, half white and half full blood aboriginal, Australia’s indigenous people. Now, many decades later, this is considered not politically correct, so the books carry a certain connotation to them. This is totally unwarranted, because those who read the novels, and here I mean read them very carefully, will find that the author, Upfield, was very sympathetic in his treatment of those aborigines. Because there is a perception of a ‘white’ man writing novels associated with Aboriginal themes, then that perception is tainted somewhat, and from both sides of the race fence. However, a close reading of those novels would lead the reader to wonder what all the supposed fuss was really about.

Upfield wrote 29 books in the series. This series was really successful, both at the time of writing and then again in the 60’s and 70’s, here in Australia, and in Europe, especially in Germany, and also in the U.S. where Upfield was indeed quite popular.

The first of the books in the series was written in 1929, and the last was published in 1966. This last book was in fact compiled after his death from Upfield’s copious notes, and released after his death at the age of 73 in 1964.

The books are now long out of print, and occasionally, you might actually find one in a second hand book retailer, so they are indeed hard to come by.

I cannot remember the first of the Bony novels I read. It was in the early 70’s when I was in my early 20’s. I distinctly remember it being a really good yarn, because I was viewing the novel from the ‘Crime Fiction’ aspect. A few years later, there was a TV series based loosely around the character. This series named the character differently from Upfield, adding the letter ‘E’ to his name, calling him Boney, the same pronunciation as Upfield originally intended, but, and I say here unfortunately, taking the viewer a little for granted in that they could not differentiate one from the other without a clarification for pronunciation purposes.

The series was in fact quite a popular one here in Australia, and as good as the individual episodes were, it suffered from the thing all movies and TV series do when using a book for reference. It left an awful lot out.

Because I was interested in this TV series, it prompted me to go out and get the books, then in regular release due to the popularity of the TV series. Over the next few years I purchased more and more of them. Each book was as good as the first was, a unique piece of crime detection set in a totally unique Australian setting. Upfield has his character, Bony, investigating murders in different areas of this great land Australia, nearly all of them in ‘the bush‘ as we refer to the great Outback, and in so doing, gives us insight into that area, insight into the people from that area, and also insight into the Aboriginal people of that area, as well as aspects of their culture as well, all interwoven into the narrative.

(Luckily) I actually kept the books in my collection. They fell slowly out of major release, and over the years I picked up more of them, each time enjoying them as I did read them.

By the end of the 70’s I had moved on in my reading habits, and even though I still had a number of these Bony books, in the number of the high teens, I basically forgot about them.

In 1988, for Christmas, our three children had reached the age where they all had jobs, their own income, and were actually purchasing their own Christmas presents for Dad, and Mum, with their own money, and without some prompting from Mum,you know, maybe some shirts or the like.

So, at a time when we were all together as a family, they ‘felt’ me out on what I actually might ‘want’ as a Christmas present.

I thought about it for a while and then asked for a gift voucher from one of the major Book stores, so I might purchase some books that I liked.

My youngest Son thought that was akin to giving money, so he asked me that I give him a list of books I might like to read, and he would make a Christmas present from that list. I was quite surprised to see a large present under the tree from him. Expecting only one book, he had in fact bought me three of them, and I still have them to this day. They were Larry McMurtry’s wonderful Lonesome Dove, Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire Of The Vanities, and Count Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. I think he thought that three huge books like this would ‘tap’ me out of reading. As it turned out, I read them quite quickly. My good lady wife and our daughter got me the asked for gift vouchers and I had what I thought was enough books for a whole year. That turned out to be false as I went through them all in only five months. Then there was a birthday, luckily, and then Christmas. From that point on, none of them was ever stumped as to what to get me for a present.

With the book vouchers, I spent many days in the two book shops poring over what to get. I stumbled across one of those novels from Arthur Upfield, one that I had not got in my collection, and one that was currently in one of those later sporadic releases. I got this book, and during this reading, almost 15 years after the earlier readings of his Bony novels, I found something I had not ‘picked up’ from those original readings.

What this prompted me to do was to go through the publishing credits in the front of each of those books and see how many of them I was missing, still unaware as to how many he wrote.

From those Publishers notes, I ended up with a list of 28 of his books, and I had 25 of them by this time. Luckily, further releases gave me three more titles, giving me now what I thought to be all 28 of these Bony books. A friend of my Mother’s seemed to think that Upfield had written more than 35 books in all, so now my interest was piqued in trying to find out for sure, but most places I looked led only to dead ends.

Four years later I was searching through a major reference library on an unrelated matter. My eye was taken by a huge reference book on Crime Fiction, and that started my research off in earnest.

I found that Upfield did in fact write only 29 books in the Bony series. There were three books prior to his settling on the Bony character and another two written during those intervening years. By now, I had 28 of those Bony books, and it took me a further two years to finally track down the one I was missing.

Still wanting more in the way of information, I again found a further reference book on Crime Fiction, and this lead me to two further books dealing specifically with Arthur Upfield, both interesting for the background and the insight they provided into Upfield the man, and opinion on his writings.

Then, I wanted to read all the books again to see if the series was constructed in any sort of continuation. To call it a series is perhaps a slight misnomer, as each novel was a new ‘case’, so to speak, and there were little, if any references to earlier investigations. The only thing I had to go on was those publishing dates, so I read the books in that order. They ‘seemed’ to flow on one after the other in close accordance to those publishing dates, although in a couple of the novels, Upfield gave the impression of placing some of them out of sequence, probably due in the main to the fact that he was pretty prolific with the novels after the Second World War. Those first 9 books took him 11 years and the next 19 were published over a 17 year period.

I was only part the way through the first novel when I came to the distinct impression that this was a completely different book to when I first read it. Not that it was, but because this time I was seeing something I had missed the first time round. I decided to take notes as I was reading, and then, when I finished the novel, while it was still fresh to put those notes down into a place where I could have them not just as thoughts, but hard copy, on my word processor, where I could keep an enduring record of each of those novels.

Each book was a revelation, and in fact,giving me the same impression as that first novel had, virtually a complete new novel, as I picked up on everything I missed during that original read, with some of those novels having first been read almost 20 years earlier. I was seeing things with a fresh and new set of eyes, finding something that was always there, but not noticed the first time around.

The notes for each novel varied in length. During the reading process, I then started expanding on those notes in a file not specifically related to the individual novels, but more along the lines of a general overview of what my perceptions were.

Some of the novels have quite a long review, and others may seem short. That does not mean some novels are better than others, because of all 29 books, I can honestly say only one of them seemed anything less than an author comfortable in, and at the same time, at the top of his craft.

The overview then became something quite large as I expanded on my overall impressions.

During this process, I found myself wanting even further insight, so I tried to find out if any of the Bony novels would see further publishing in the future. After some initial setbacks, I was finally put in touch with Tom Thompson, who, at that time in the late 90’s, owned the Publishing rights to a good number of those Upfield novels. We corresponded and spoke on the phone with each other a number of times over a period of four or five years, and recently I got in touch with him again just to touch base. He has a wonderful website at this link about Upfield, which has further links to other areas that give some insight into Arthur Upfield, some recent releases, and recent news with respect to the possible re – release of the original TV series. This site of Tom Thompson’s is the Official Arthur Upfield site, and he has kindly allowed me approval to release what I have in my notes and the reviews here at our site. At that same site is also an area that shows some recent TV ‘Specials’ that detail some aspects of Upfield and his character Bony. One of those specifically deals with something that may have actually set Upfield on the long path his character led him to. This directly concerns his second Bony novel, The Sands Of Windee. In that novel he had the original murder committed in a manner that made it seem to be the perfect murder, and Bony had to work it out. As it transpired, someone actually used the method Upfield described in that novel to commit an actual murder. As it eventually came out, Upfield was devastated by this, but it did give him an increased profile. He was asked by a Newspaper to ‘cover’ the murder case, and the murderer was eventually found guilty and was hanged, Capital Punishment still being part of the punishment regime for Murder in some States of Australia at that time. A Special two part TV special was made of this actual investigation. You can read about that TV special at this link. This one novel, and the things that eventuated from it gave Upfield a much higher profile, and from that point on, his course was probably ‘set in stone’, and each of his subsequent novels sold well.

During this whole process, I learned something completely new, and in doing so, it gave me an appreciation of the way Upfield treated what was seen through other eyes to be quote ‘The Aboriginal problem’ unquote. This was where, in my opinion, these novels by Upfield were completely misconstrued, and taken out of context.

If I had just left it at those first readings, from those vague memories of a young man reading the novels as Crime Fiction per se, then I think those incorrect assumptions would have actually been reinforced. However, had I not taken this time to very carefully go through those 29 novels all over again, (and almost reading between the lines) then I would not have come to the realisation that Upfield not only cleverly found a way to weave Crime detection into a setting unique to Australia, but he also found a way to interweave Aboriginal culture into those novels, and to do so in a way that showed he, Upfield, was in fact quite knowledgeable about that culture, infinitely more so than the average Australian.

Those novels were indeed quite literally ahead of their time. In a time when there ‘may’ have been some hostility towards the indigenous Aboriginal People of Australia, Upfield treated them with the respect that in fact they are still not receiving in some quarters now.

Too often, Upfield’s Bony novels have been decried for all the wrong reasons. That is a big factor in the series becoming ‘unfashionable’, due specifically to Political Correctness.

One novel read in isolation may give that impression, but overall, having read all 29 of them, you soon come to the swift realisation that Upfield has indeed been harshly treated because of Political Correctness.

What I hope to achieve by finally posting those reviews after all these years, and for all 29 Bony Novels, as well as the long and detailed build up from those novels in the form of my notes is to finally have in the one place a reference to an Australian author who wrote uniquely Australian novels that can be read by anyone anywhere on the Planet. The novels are excellent as Crime Fiction, excellent as Detection, and offer insight into something that is not only interesting, but in fact is quite important.

I will be adding a continuing series of posts of all my notes, as well as the book reviews to this site, adding a new post every second or third day. These posts will all be able to be accessed from the one place with links to each of those posts and reviews.

If this series prompts you to actually try and find an Upfield novel to read, and find out for yourself, then I’m afraid to have to add that I wish you every success, because the books are long out of print, and they would even be difficult to find in large, or even small second hand book retailers. If you do in fact find one, then I would not specifically recommend one of them, because each is as good as the next.

This is the link to the Arthur W Upfield Home Page at our blog, where each new post will have the link added as they appear.