Book Review – Mr Jelly’s Business – Arthur W Upfield

Posted on Mon 10/04/2010 by



First published    (Australia) Angus and Robertson – 1937
Second Publisher    (UK) John Hamilton – 1937
Third Publisher    (U.S.) Doubleday – 1943 (Under the title Murder Down Under)
This edition        Arkon 1981 (Arkon is a subsidiary of Angus and Robertson)
Copyright        Arthur W Upfield        1937

Bony is on holidays in Perth, Western Australia, when he meets an old friend, Detective Sergeant Muir. Bony helps him to solve one of the current investigations that Muir is working on, making it look like Muir only receives passing help from Bony. As a consequence of this, Muir is sent off to Queensland to capture the wanted man, and Bony is co opted to continue the other of Muir’s current investigations, a supposed murder in a town out near the goldfields.

Bony works incognito, working as a government employee on a section of the rabbit fence with only the local policeman having any knowledge of his true identity. An interesting point here is that Bony, under pressure from his erstwhile commander, Colonel Spendor back in Brisbane, solves a murder that occurred in Toowoomba. He solves this in absentia, almost as a passing thing, and then sends a letter to Brisbane with the results of his investigation, including the name of the murderer, and just where to pick him up.

There is mention in passing of Illawalli, and also an intriguing mention of a cooling breeze, which is called the ‘Albany Doctor’. I have an opinion that this could in fact be an early reference to the cooling breeze familiarly known now in Perth, and especially at the WACA cricket ground as ‘The Fremantle Doctor’.

There appears in this novel a character who is the salt of the earth, larger than life, and there follows a description of a brawl in the local pub, where this huge, old gentleman clears the bar of much younger and more able persons. This gentleman is revered throughout the town, and is effectively described as ‘The Spirit Of Australia’, and this becomes an enduring theme in other Upfield novels.

Mister Jelly occasionally disappears to the wonder of all in the small town, especially his children, and this novel leads you to suspect that he may be ‘in the frame’ for this murder, so to speak, until Bony discovers the real reason for the absences. Bony has a soft spot for Jelly’s youngest girl, and the ending of this novel, Bony shows great tenderness in his farewell.

The murdered mans wife comes in for some harsh treatment from Upfield, and in this description of Bony dealing with her here, Upfield effectively describes an intriguing outback method to cover up the dead body, and in so doing, finds a clever way of having Bony discover it.

There is a slight and only passing reference to Barrakee and Windee.

One of the recurring subjects in this novel deals with the title itself, and the true nature of Mr Jelly’s Business comes out at the end of this novel.

This is another novel that effectively highlights Upfield’s ability to tell a story, and to keep your interest right to the end. The little clues scattered throughout the story combine right towards the end to fill out the story in a way that you would least expect.

Again, Upfield the author uses something in this novel that he himself did whilst in his many travels. He has Bony working on what is called ‘The Number One Rabbit Proof Fence’. Upfield himself worked on this fence himself  for three years, and was the lone patrolman in charge of constantly inspecting 200 miles of this fence, The fence itself was constructed at enormous expense for the time, and finished in 1907. Rabbits did not exist in Australia prior to white settlement. A small number came here as family pets, and as is usually the case, they escaped into the wild. Conditions in Australia were perfect for rabbits and they proliferated at a truly alarming rate, and within years there were virtually tens of millions of them, and they were considered the largest pest in the Country.  Numerous methods were used in an effort to control them, none of these ever working at all. They advanced across the Country at an alarming rate. In Western Australia, the Government spent an enormous, for the time, 300,000 Pounds to construct a fence to try and stop them encroaching into the far western areas of the State. This fence when finished was in fact the longest fence on Earth at 1139 miles long and took 6 years in the construction.

The fence was constantly patrolled, each man in charge of one section, on his own for months at a time. They had to repair the fence, and keep it clear it of debris. That debris would roll up to the fence and stop, building up. The sand would then blow up against this debris, and make a mound. The rabbits would then just walk over the top to the other side, so the job was a long and labour intensive task. The men only had one or two camels with them as pack animals with all their equipment for the fence maintenance, and all their supplies etc.

For a more in depth explanation, read the article at this link. (pdf document)

Upfield worked actual experience into this novel quite effectively, weaving his story around it. In this manner, Bony can keep the appearance of someone other than the Detective he really is, and be believable whilst doing so.