Book Review – The Barrakee Mystery – Arthur W Upfield

Posted on Thu 09/23/2010 by



First published    Hutchinson and Company    1929
Second Publisher    William Heinnemann Ltd    1965
Third Publisher    Pan Books Ltd        1969
This edition        Third printing            1974
Copyright        Bonaparte Holdings        1965

This is the first book in the Bony series and was written in 1929. This first book differs markedly from subsequent books in the series, as it starts out with the commission of the actual crime, and Bony does not arrive on the scene until nearly a quarter of the way through the book, about page 60 or so, and unless you know from the start that Bony is the Police presence actually investigating this crime, then you might not be aware, as he is in his under cover role right from the first mention of his arrival, and then it becomes obvious, to some characters in the novel, and by extrapolation, the reader.

There was no mention of any previous cases, other than the case that seems to have started his reputation, that of the kidnapping of the Governor of Queensland’s daughter, and how Bony tracked down the culprits, and safely recovered the child.

To set the background for the character, it was mentioned that he lived at Banyo, a little town on the outskirts of Brisbane, the Capital city in the State of Queensland, and now, in the 21st Century, Banyo is virtually an Inner Brisbane suburb. It was also mentioned that Bony had a wife, (who is also half caste, half white, half aboriginal) and three children, all sons, the eldest still at University in Brisbane.

This case is set in outback New South Wales, and Bony is on loan from his CIB (Criminal Investigation Bureau) Branch in Queensland. As this is the first story in the series, it sort of sets the tone for all the following books in the manner of basic plot structure with respect to the characters in the novel.

There is the local policeman, who works closely with Bony, the local doctor, and in most cases, some aboriginals, or even groups of them.

Bony shows his distinct dislike of red tape, and his tenacity in solving the case no matter how long it takes.

On this case, he worked incognito, the only persons with knowledge of who he was being the Station owner, and the local Policeman.

Bony visited the local aboriginals in their area that had been set aside for them.

It was mentioned that he was a master tracker, able to track anybody, anywhere. This ability Bony knows to be as foolproof as fingerprinting, but then having to prove that to a judge and jury will be quite another thing altogether.

Here, Upfield also showed a marked, and comprehensive knowledge of what seems somewhat obscure aboriginal culture, knowledge of the different types of boomerangs, and other things closely associated only with aborigines. This was accurately demonstrated by Upfield when he has the murder committed with a boomerang, and Bony then discusses his vast knowledge of the different types of boomerangs, and their uses.

It was mentioned that Bony has never failed in a case. There was also mention of the ‘sting ray’ analogy, here, seemingly an isolated incidence, but later mentioned in further Bony novels as well. He also worked fairly closely with the local district’s resident Policeman, in this case a Sergeant Knowles, who appears in some later novels, having climbed up the Police rank structure. this effectively highlights in this, Upfield’s first tentative steps in this Bony series of how effectively he has Bony using the abilities of the local Policeman, and how the future career of that police officer always seems to be enhanced with the presence of Bony to conduct the investigation. Bony includes Knowles in the investigation, and cleverly makes it look like that any help he receives is at the instigation of Knowles.

There was also mention of ‘Illawalli’, a big ‘chief’ of a Queensland ‘clan’ of aborigines, ‘clan’ being the word that Upfield used to describe this ‘family’, and ‘chief’ also his way of describing what is in actual fact, not the ‘chief’ per se, but the senior elder of this familial group, or groups of aboriginal people.

There was mention towards the end of the book of Colonel Spendor, his chief of Police in Brisbane, and how he desperately wanted Bony to return to Brisbane so he could be sent to solve a case in Longreach, in far Western Queensland, an investigation that he needs to have cleared up quite quickly, and evidently Bony is the only detective that he thinks is capable of doing this.

In many later novels, Upfield becomes more comfortable with his Bony character, and this first novel ‘feels the way’ so to speak and sets the scene for those future novels.

As crime detection, this is something that is a little from left field when in this day and age, we are bombarded with what seems gratuitous violence, knowledge almost up front as to who committed the crime, and then the Police effort to work up from the original crime to closure of the investigation.

This first Bony novel is almost laid back and laconic as it slowly develops and builds up. Even close to the end of the novel, Bony (and the reader) seem no closer to resolution than they were when he first arrived. Then, Bony, having noted every clue in his own mind, solved the case in the last couple of pages.

This, right from this first novel, indicates Upfield’s craft in story telling. During the resolution of the case in the last few pages, each little clue is recalled, and the reader says to himself, ‘Hey! I remember that’, however not putting it together as a clue in fact. So right from this first novel, the mystery is only for the one person, Bony, the detective. The reader is just taken along as an outside observer. Those clues are not for the reader, but for Bony to ‘squirrel away’ in his own mind, and then, at the precise time, recall all those clues for the people around him, and by extrapolation, the reader. It’s a very clever method that seems to have been lost in this day and age, now 82 years after Upfield first wrote this novel. The odd thing, as a reader. You find yourself trying to look for clues to solve the mystery, and they are blended so cleverly into the narrative that you the reader notice them, and even while you are specifically looking for those clues, they are so subtle that they just pass you right by.

When viewed in the context of the first of what became a long series, this first novel shows that Upfield already seemed to have a very good structure that provided a good foundation for those future novels.

It is a gripping yarn all the way through. When taken in the context of a murder mystery, it succeeds on that level, and does so very well. However, the manner in which Upfield incorporated aboriginal culture almost seems unobtrusive, which indicates right at this early stage, his masterful way of disseminating that culture, not as the main point, but as part of the overall. You learn things along the way about the culture without even realising it is happening.