Book Review – The Bone Is Pointed – Arthur W Upfield

Posted on Tue 10/26/2010 by



First published     (Australia) Angus and Robertson – 1938

Second Publisher     (UK) John Hamilton – 1939

Third Publisher     (US) Doubleday – 1947

This Edition    Arkon – 1972 (Arkon is a subsidiary of Angus & Robertson)

Arkon, a subsidiary of Angus and Robertson published 12 of the Bony books I think. This book was among the first of those published under the Arkon cover. This first run of books was seemingly done to coincide with the timing of the original television series. This original group were all done with red covers whilst the grey ones were used in the second run. The cover of this closely relates to that TV series, with some cover images taken from the series itself. Also the spelling of the character has been changed to also relate to the TV series, that name change from the original Bony to Boney. There is a note on a page inside the cover explaining the name change.

This story is set again, in outback NSW, and here, Bony does all his work as a DI, and everyone knows that he is a policeman. The local policeman is Sgt Blake. Bony has to solve the disappearance of a detested stockman, and the case is nearly eight months old when Bony arrives, and the trail is already quite cold.

This story is closely linked with the aborigines in the area, and Upfield effectively weaves them into the narrative, giving three distinct impressions, and these impressions when viewed in their singularity seem to enhance age old preconceptions that seem to have been held with regard to the aborigines.

However, when all these things are viewed as a whole, an entirely different perspective is seen.

The first impression is that they (the aborigines) seem to be closely involved with the murder, thus making them, as a whole, the collective bad guy. This impression is further enhanced when they point the bone at Bony, making them even more into a collective bad guy.

The second impression is one of misguided loyalty, with regard to the boning. The pointing of the bone is therefore turned into something of a well intentioned necessity to protect the landholder who seems to be in the frame for the disappearance and suspected murder, and the boning is done to protect him from the force of the law, and this is also being done in an attempt to preserve their aboriginal way of life, something that is also so vigorously protected by this same landholder.

The third impression, and this one seems to be strengthened by the other two is that the aboriginal people are basically simple, this view seemingly further enhanced when they seem to easily give in to this landholder on every occasion.

When these three impressions are viewed as a whole, the notion then becomes entirely different indeed. These people are in some way desperate attempting to keep their old traditions intact. They have the idea that they cannot do this on their own, as the power for change comes from the white source and this is irresistibly walled up in front of them, and is something that have no power over, this strength of will for change lying with the white people. When one of these white people, in this case the landholder, sees this strength of will to try and keep their own ways of living in a peace of their own making, and then effectively tries to help them, they then seek to assist him in this, and when it looks like this one chance at relative peace to live their own way looks like being taken from them, they assist in the only way that they can.

What it also effectively shows is that the well intentioned landholder has no real understanding of the aborigines ways and culture, and in trying to protect them, is really only seeking to impose a version of his own will on them. He still effectively took their land away from them and set himself up on it, and then thinks that he can go on his own way, as long as he thinks to himself that he is being good to the aborigines. It seems like another form of control over the aborigines, only he thinks that he is allowing them to go on as they always did, and when this is viewed by an informed outsider, it is just seems to be a form of benevolent control, but either way it is still control.

Bony mentions his son, still at university. Loveacre gets two mentions, and Illawalli is also mentioned, but there are no references to any other investigations.

There is mention of two local policemen from a couple of Bony’s previous investigations being moved from their outposts in the bush to better jobs, with subsequent promotions to positions in larger cities.

The local policeman’s wife in this novel is related to the wife of Superintendent Browne, who is in charge of the CIB in Brisbane. As part of the this close relationship, the character of Bony’s Police Chief, Colonel Spendor is expanded upon in this novel, and this is effectively done by the introduced relationship of the local Policeman’s wife and the Brisbane connection, who is in contact with Spendor. A whole chapter is devoted to Spendor in this novel, the only time that Spendor becomes less of the ogre he has been made to seem, and here we see the concerned, friendly side of the revered Colonel.

As the title suggest, during the course of his investigation, the elders of the local aboriginal tribe point the bone at Bony, in an effort to protect one of the local station owners who seems to be implicated in the murder, and who does not want the aborigines to lose their identity and culture. This bone pointing is effected without the knowledge of the said station owner, who later finds out and has the bone pointing reversed, but this happens almost at the point where Bony is close to death. This pointing of the bone very effectively illustrates the battle between the two cultures that Bony is caught between, as he tries to overcome it with white thinking and intelligence, and is unable to do so, because of his black heritage. As this investigation evolves, Bony has to work to a time constraint, as he is not sure that he can finish the investigation before the effects of the boning reach a climax, one way or the other. Prior to the boning starting to take effect, there is correspondence from Brisbane that urges him, in no uncertain terms that he should cease the investigation and return to Brisbane, and the sorely offended Bony is tempted to resign, a fact which he mentions to Blake, who discerns that this could be due to the fact that he is mentally weak, as well as physically weak, as a result of the boning. This local local policeman, Blake, writes to Browne in Brisbane about the pointing of the bone, and Browne gets in contact with Lowther, personal private secretary to Spendor, and speaks about the matter with Spendor. This results in our seeing that Spendor is not the ogre he always seems to be made out to be, and also indicates the high regard that Bony has throughout the whole Police Department in Queensland. Browne is immediately dispatched to contact Bony and urge him to return to Brisbane, where he can receive help, Browne flying there with Loveacre. They all arrive during a massed rabbit migration, and this is again described with great, and quite evocative detail, as the group of people try to keep them from breaking through the rabbit fence, another spellbinding description of a phenomena, that but for some old Movietone footage, has passed into legendary status. (For an explanation the pointing of the bone see Note 1 below)

Bony works with and against the aborigines in this story. There is mention of bone pointing with reference to two other investigations that Bony has worked on, neither of these Upfield having  written of , and I am not sure if they are meant to point in the direction of other investigations. The first is of Dieri man from Lake Frome, and I suspect that this may not point to the last book that Upfield wrote, ‘The Lake Frome Monster’, as this work was only partly completed when Upfield passed away, this novel however not being written for a further twenty four years after the publication of this novel. The other mention is of the pointing of a half caste on the southern Queensland border who ran away with the chiefs favourite lubra. (Note 2) This might also refer to a book published at a later date, but I would tend to believe that it is totally unrelated to anything else that Upfield wrote, and has just been mentioned in context.

Upfield makes a pointed and very deliberate comment about how one of the local landholders is making a deliberate attempt to try and preserve the local aborigines and their culture by trying to keep them from being assimilated into the white culture, and thus losing their own culture. Upfield uses this character to explain at great length that the aboriginal culture is far superior to the white culture, and that the white way is taking over only because it perceives itself as being the stronger, and that the black culture is worthless, steeped in mystical mumbo jumbo that they cannot, or will not attempt to understand.

This is a very descriptive narrative, and one where Upfield starts to write down, through his characters, his own views on the assimilation of the aborigines, and how this may not be as good as the intention seemed to be at the first instant. I begin to find some sort of inkling about how Upfield might have been perceived as strengthening the age old stereotypes with regard to the aborigines. He does this through his characters, and when these characters with these stereotypical views are looked at in isolation, these views seem to be enhanced. However, when the whole narrative is viewed in totality, the aborigines have been treated with great sympathy by Upfield, this possibly being included as a further classic case of an author being misunderstood, and then having to spend the rest of his life recovering from ill informed critical comment.

Note 1. The pointing of the bone by a group of aborigines was a very rare thing, and was not embarked upon at a whim. This is a very serious thing, and while only touched upon here in this review, I explain it in a more in depth nature in the series of notes I made on these Upfield Bony novels. Contrary to the somewhat misguided belief that it is steeped in mumbo jumbo, it is in fact a deeply psychological thing, on behalf of those who are pointing the bone, and also on the person who is being ‘boned’. In the narrative of this novel, Upfield goes to great lengths to explain the process, as it happens to his character Bony, and even though a work of fiction, it very capably explains something that is so misunderstood.

Note 2. This term ‘Lubra’ is now considered as a derogatory term of reference, and was applied to what we term in white society as being a married woman. In aboriginal culture there is no set thing as marriage, and that word marriage is the closest approximation of what the aborigines do when a woman joins up with a man, and the word Lubra was used to describe that woman, in much the same way as we would refer to her as Mrs. The term is now highly derogatory, and has fallen out of use.