Upfield Commentary – Ray Brown’s ‘The Spirit Of Australia’

Posted on Sun 09/26/2010 by


During the process of trying to definitively find out about how many books Upfield wrote in the Bony series of novels, I found two books about Upfield, and wanting to know more about him, I got hold of these books, hoping they might provide some insight into what impressions others had got from reading his novels, and with respect to the Jessica Hawke book, some insight into Upfield himself at a personal level.

By this time, I was part way through this second and more in depth reading of those Bony novels, and the revelations of seeing something I had so comprehensively ‘missed’ the first time round was something that intrigued me, because having read a novel, I had never revisited that same novel at a later date, the perception being that having read it, then there was surely nothing more I could glean from it, and that if I did read it a second time, then it would be somehow disappointing because I would know what was coming next, if you can see that point. This revelation of ‘seeing something new’ actually started with these Bony novels. It’s not something I do regularly with novels, and in fact, is something I have only done with a couple of other novels. Having now learned a lesson from these Bony books, it caused me to view some novels in a new light. True, there’s 99 out of 100 novels that I would not consider revisiting, but this second reading of all those Upfield novels was indeed eye opening because they actually did seem to be new, because I was learning something new from them.

Thinking that maybe this might also carry over to some other novels, then over the intervening years I have revisited some of those other novels. Atlas Shrugged would be one of my favoutite novels, and was one of those I revisited, and I have now read that three times, and each time has been like a new reading. It surprises me actually, how much you do miss whilst reading a novel. Your interest is intense and you just want to read as much as you can as fast as you can, and in that process, there are things you do miss. As I mentioned, It’s only something I would do with major novels, and two others I have revisited are Count Leo Tolstoy’s War And Peace, and those two wonderful Australian opusus, Poor Fellow My Country, by Xavier Herbert, and Power Without Glory by Frank Hardy.

These Upfield novels are by no means in the same stellar category of those other novels, but they have a special place for me because they showed me something about reading that you are not taught, and cannot learn without actually doing it consciously.


The first of those two opinion references that I read was the Ray Brown book. This seemed to be of an esoteric nature, and in my opinion, had some inaccuracies, and most of these were only of a minor nature, that did not detract from the overall picture, as I was not all that concerned, as the overall picture presented in this book I only perceived as being another persons opinion.

Brown referred often to the Jessica Hawke book, so that this Hawke book seemed to me to be the most important Upfield reference book I should be trying to obtain, as she was living with Upfield for most of the time in Upfield’s later life.

Brown also mentioned two of those titles that Upfield wrote and had not been published until recently, Breakaway House, and The Great Melbourne Cup Mystery, both published in book form only recently at that time.

The Brown book was written in the U.S. where Upfield was really popular, and held in some reverence as a crime writer. He was in fact far more popular in the U.S. than here in Australia, and in fact was the only non American author to win a coveted Crime Writers Award, an award that Upfield wanted to accept in person, but in fact could never accept in person by travelling to America, his health being the factor that prevented this.

This Brown book, having been written in America, by an American, contains some minor inaccuracies, as I mentioned, and these I can understand, Americans not being as close to the source, so to say, as we are here in Australia, knowing our own Country better than readers in the U.S. might.

At times, from reading Brown’s reviews of those Bony novels, I actually felt that I was reading a completely different Bony book than the one I actually did read with the same title, and this leads me to ask a question, that question being, were the books published in America slightly different to those published in Australia.

The main title in question in this instance was ‘The Mystery Of Swordfish Reef’. Brown says that in this book, Bony is held below decks with the two crewmen from the missing boat, the ‘Do Me’. In the book that I have, Bony is held in a cave, and this is reinforced often in the novel I have. As Brown mentions it often, I get the impression that it is actually written that way in the book that he was using for his reference.

Brown also mentions that the normal covering for the feet of the aborigines is feathers. This is not quite accurate, as this form of foot covering is only used on the rarest of occasions as an elaborate form of disguise, and is shrouded deeply in aboriginal culture. This is done so that the person wearing this particular foot covering can avoid detection, and here you must realise this means detection by fellow aborigines in the main, as this is something that has been done by the aborigines long before white man came to Australia. This feet covering in fact raises the spectre of the dreaded ‘Kurdaitcha Man’, that I will explain in a later post. Brown makes mentions of this form of ‘normal’ footwear in a few places throughout his text.

Brown also seems to lightly gloss over much of the aboriginal culture that is just so prolific in Upfield’s books. He mentions some of the aboriginal methods, but not in as mush detail as I would have expected. Either this, or he places different connotations on what he actually says about it.

Brown also mentions Bony’s University degree that he obtained prior to becoming a detective. He says that Bony has a Bachelor of Science. In the books that I have, there are numerous mentions of Bony’s degree. Some have it that he has a BA, Bachelor of Arts, and some mention that he has an MA, a Master of Arts. This Masters Degree is a post graduate degree and follows on from the original BA, necessitating further study after obtaining the BA. The fact that Brown has Bony with a BSc also differs from the books that I have, further reinforcing the fact that the books published in the US may in fact differ from those published here in Australia, and in the UK.

A further thing I gleaned from the Brown book was the list of the books at the end of his books that he used as his references. He lists Angus and Robertson as being the  publishers of fifteen of the titles that he used as references. I have only twelve that were published by Angus and Robertson, or their subsidiaries, and going by the original list of publishers, only eight of Upfield’s books were published by Angus and Robertson in the first instance. It seems that chasing copyrights is not such an isolated thing. Some of the books that Brown mentions published by A & R, I have as being published by Pan, and  some of the books I have as being published by A & R he has as being published by other publishers altogether.

None of these things were an irritation, as I was only searching for other opinions.

This Ray Brown book is good in this respect, as it offers insight into the literary style that Upfield wrote  in, dissecting the books, and commenting on everything from the settings, the characters, the plots, Upfield’s life and philosophy, and how he weaves the stories. He used the Jessica Hawke book often as a source of knowledge that he further commented upon.

In all, I found the Brown book a good read.