Book Review – Wings Above The Diamantina – Arthur W Upfield

Posted on Thu 09/30/2010 by



First published    (Australia) Angus and Robertson – 1936
Second Publisher    (UK) John Hamilton – 1937 (Under the title Winged Mystery)
Third Publisher    (U.S.) Doubleday – 1943 (Under the title Wings Above The Claypan)
This edition        Third Printing in 1978 of Pan Publishing – 1972 (In association with Heinemann)
Copyright        Arthur W Upfield        1936

This investigation is set in outback Queensland, and starts with the commission of the crime. The crime involves the kidnapping of a young woman, removing her via the use of an aircraft, and then the attempted deliberate crashing of that stolen aircraft, so that the real cause can be covered up, and made to look like it was just a plane crash. The girl is drugged, and the plane is found intact in the middle of a claypan, looking for all intents and purposes to have been purposely landed there. The woman is rescued from the plane but remains in a coma, and the plane is later destroyed by fire to cover up any evidence. Bony does not turn up until almost a quarter of the way through the book, about page fifty or so, and, as is the nature of this investigation, he needs to work fast, as the girl is in a coma, and no one seems able to find out exactly what she has been drugged with. He works here as himself, a Detective Inspector (DI) in this case, and everyone knows exactly who he is.

Again, there is mention of the ‘sting ray’ analogy.

The local policeman is Sergeant Cox, and also continuing a recurring theme, his career is enhanced and furthered just by the presence of Bony, and closely associating with him during the investigation.

The local doctor’s name is Knowles, (incidentally, the same name used for the local policeman in book one, at Barrakee) and Knowles is also a pilot of some renown in this local district.  So, in a time when very little is known by the vast majority of these people living in the ‘Outback’, about most forms of aircraft, Bony in fact does have someone he can refer to when he needs information on that front. It also helps that Knowles is also the Doctor who is so desperately seeking to bring this young woman out of the coma.

Again, this shows Upfield’s progressive thinking of including something of interest at the time of writing and weaving it into his narrative. The Flying Doctor was a topical thing at this time, having been started just prior to 1930, and this was becoming known in a more widespread manner in the 30’s at the time of this Upfield novel’s writing. A Doctor would use an aircraft, rudimentary in those days, to visit patients, able to quickly cover the vast distances in the huge Outback of Australia. This way he could get there quickly, and take the patient to hospital if needed. This original germ of an idea of one Doctor, the Rev. John Flynn, morphed into the very large thing it has become today as The Royal Flying Doctor Service.

The main character who owns the plane stolen during the kidnapping is Captain Loveacre. The plane in question is a sleek low winged monoplane, and Loveacre’s main aircraft is a big twin engined de Havilland biplane.

Here you need to be aware that this is set in the mid 30’s when aircraft were still quite uncommon, and most were indeed biplanes so a monoplane at this time would have been a fairly new thing, both the aircraft itself and the situation of this type of aircraft being used as part of the narrative itself, another example of Upfield being progressive in his writing, and using something new taken from everyday life at the time.

These types of passenger aircraft were also a fairly recent thing, even at the time of writing in 1936. This latter aircraft, described in the novel as a ‘big, twin engined de Havilland biplane’, would most probably have been a de Havilland DH84 Dragon, or the slightly more powerful Dragon Rapide. These were the Tiger Moths of passenger aircraft. In 1967 I actually flew as a passenger in a Rapide, owned and lovingly restored by a family friend. In a time long before all metal construction, these aircraft in the main were fabric covered over the metal and wooden frame.

Accustomed to modern flying, there would be a lot of people who might view one of these aircraft now, and say ….. “Not on your life”. The aircraft was rudimentary to say the least, but at the time, in the mid 1930’s, these were actually ‘state of the art’

A Commons image of the de Havilland Dragon Rapide is shown here, and if you click on the image, it will open in a new and larger window.

As part of this narrative, there is mention of both Barrakee and Windee stations.

Bony’s tribal mentor from his time with his family of Aboriginal background is an old and very Senior Aboriginal Elder whose name is Illawalli, the clan chief from Bony’s North Queensland family group, and Bony decides that this old man is the only one who can assist them to try and find out what drug was used to incapacitate the young woman, now rapidly deteriorating, so something is needed to be done, and needed fast.

Illawalli becomes a recurring theme also in later novels, but this is one of the very few times he is actually on the scene in a Bony novel.

Illawalli is flown in to try and solve the mystery of what it is that is keeping the girl in a coma. This extended passage alone of that flight is just one of the sole reasons this novel is worth reading.

Loveacre himself is the pilot and old Illawalli has no idea of the peril they are in as Loveacre tries to outrun an approaching storm. The pages of this passage mostly deal with Illawalli’s thoughts of this flight and his reaction to it. Illawalli is from a clan (or tribe) whose totem is the Emu, which is a flightless, and very large bird, only found in Australia. There is an anomaly in a later novel when Illawalli is given the totem of Cassowary, a similar large bird, but the Emu is the most referred to Totem in later novels for both Bony and his mentor. Illawalli is almost in a dreamlike trance as the experience of the flight washes over him, as he finally imagines what it would be like flying, something his Totemic Emu cannot do.

At the height, and climax of this story, this approaching storm results in a huge rain event that causes major flooding in this local area, similar in nature to what happened in the first of the Bony novels. Bony has to cross a flooded river in an attempt to stop the killer getting to the farm where the comatose woman is being kept, the killer intending to finish the job. This flood scene is very descriptive, and at times, you actually feel yourself holding your breath in the desperate attempts to outrun the huge approaching floodwaters.

This is one of the few stories where Bony actually has to rush to complete the case, because of the circumstances of the drugged woman. Where all others have failed so comprehensively, the old tribal elder, Illawalli, uses his aboriginal knowledge to see inside the girls mind to find out just what has been used to put her in the coma, and here Illawalli seems to be the person least concerned of all that he can actually do this, giving the impression that it is all just common knowledge to him. The others are astounded that someone, seemingly from such a simple, and in their perception, a barbaric and uneducated background, can so simply solve something that has baffled minds that are assumed to be far greater than those of an old aborigine. What further astounds them is the fact that he has done this so matter of factly, that it looks as if it was just a minor thing. He just walks in, reads the girls mind and walks out, telling them exactly what the poison was, and what to use as an antidote. All Illawalli was concerned with was the magnificence of the plane flight, totally unaware that he was in such mortal danger, all the while thinking that he was just flying in ‘the big emu’.

This is a wonderful and truly ripping yarn, so evocatively written.