Book Review – The Mystery Of Swordfish Reef – Arthur W Upfield

Posted on Sun 10/31/2010 by



First published     (Australia) Angus and Robertson – 1939

Second Publisher     (US) Doubleday – 1943

Third Publisher     (UK) Heinemann – 1960

This Edition    Pan – Second Printing – 1971 (Originally first published by Pan in 1970)

This novel was originally the seventh novel in the series to be published, and this is where a fortuitous circumstance raised its head. I had already begun to read all these novels for a second time prior to actually beginning to find out the original published sequence for the novels. In an attempt to find some sort of sequence, the only thing I had to go on was the dates in the fronts of the novels that I did have. Some of those dates from some published versions did in fact have the original publishing date, so they were easy to place into some sort of order. However, as was the case with some of these novels published by Pan, they only published the original date of publishing from the Publisher that they obtained the copyrights from. In this case, that was Heinemann, and the date it was published by them was 1960, a full 21 years after the original publishing from the Australian Company Angus and Robertson. Because of that slight anomaly, this novel now became book twenty three in my sequence of the 28 of the 29 novels that I did have at that time.

This meant that I read a lot of books prior to this one. Most of them fondly mentioned his Swordfishing sojourn, giving me the false, and later disproved idea that they were in fact written by Upfield at a later date, as he sought to add books to the series and then placing them in an earlier time line. Had I read the book in its original sequence, then, where Upfield mentioned his swordfishing sojourn, these other mentions would only have been in passing. It was puzzling in a way, because it was mentioned in those other novels, and logic might suggest that if Upfield did mention it, then it would stand to reason that he in fact was referring back to a previously published novel, or in fact an alternate reason, that because he had mentioned it, then he had the opportunity to write it at a later date and then insert the time line back before he first mentioned it in those other novels.

As it proved to be, this was not the case, and it was just a simple publishing date anomaly.

Upfield refers to the term Swordfish, which in fact is a separate breed altogether from the Marlin group of fish, and this is because in those days, prior to World War 2 when this novel was written, all fish with a spear or sword out the front were referred to by the generic term ‘Swordfish’, while now they are referred to as Billfish, His use of the term swordfish actually covers all these breeds of fish.

Having read this book originally in the seventies, and also having fond memories of the original reading, and now this second one, I had the opportunity to drive through the area, although time constraints meant that we didn’t actually go into the town itself, as the Highway bypasses the town. This happened when my son, who was a member of The Royal Australian Air Force, graduated as an Air Traffic Controller from the base at East Sale in Victoria, and my wife and I drove down to Sale for the graduation parade and ball.

This area is renowned for its fishing, especially for the Billfish, those Blue, Black and Striped Marlin.

We did stop at Merimbula, close to Bermagui, on the way back and we spent the night there, and here we had a beautiful seafood spread for the evening meal. The reason I mention this is the fact that, having read the book, it stuck so fast in my mind that I literally couldn’t wait to just be in the local vicinity of where the novel was set.

The novel is set on the far south coast of NSW in the coastal town of Bermagui. Incidentally, this town is situated at the mouth of the River of the same name. In this novel Upfield refers to this River as the Bermaguee River, a different spelling of the same name. Currently the town and the River have the same spelling but there are places in that area that in fact do utilise the alternate spelling, notably the Bermaguee Nature Reserve, so I am tempted to believe that the River could actually have used that spelling originally, because Upfield would have researched it fairly well, and it would have been easy to use the one spelling instead of the two different versions.

Bermagui is quite famous for its fishing,especially Billfish, and in fact has a Worldwide reputation as being such a good spot for deep sea fishing. This probably stems from the fact that this town is the closest place on Mainland Australia to the edge of the Continental Shelf that extends out into the Ocean, so fishing boats do not have to travel as far to get to the good deep sea fishing grounds offshore.

Here is another case where Upfield the author deliberately places Bony out of his normal background of the Australian bush.

This investigation concerns the disappearance of a man who has retired from his former work, and is looking to settle in the area. He was out fishing on one of the many launches, each launch having two crew and the client, and in this case the crew are also missing. They disappeared without trace on a fine day. As it turns out, this is not a normal disappearance as the client is none other than a former high ranking Detective Superintendent with New Scotland Yard in the UK, now retired and very wealthy. He is a close friend of the NSW Police Commissioner, and foul play is suspected, especially when a trawler brings up the head of the former Detective, the head severed from the body by sharks, and with a pistol bullet entry hole in it, and a much larger exit hole on the other side of the head. The investigation is beyond the capabilities of the local Policeman, and two Detectives from Sydney sent to assist, and Bony is called in to see if he can solve the murder.

Bony arrives incognito, known only to the local Policeman, Constable Telfer, and the Secretary of the local Angling Club, and later becoming known to the crew of the launch he hooks up with. He masquerades under his own name, but as a cattleman down from the Northern Territory. As the bullet hole has been proved to be made by a point forty five calibre shell fired from a pistol, the crew are not implicated, as the only weapon on the launch is a Winchester point three two rifle, for shooting sharks as they are brought to the gaff. The two crew members are still only listed as missing. The mother of one of the crew members still goes up on the headland, waiting for the boat with her son on it to return. This same missing crew member has a twin sister, who also does not believe that he is dead, as she mentions that she would know most of all if he was dead, as the two of them always shared each others pain, and she felt nothing, only that he was in anguish.

After Bony arrives, he hooks up with a launch called the ‘Marlin’, and one of the crew is well known for understanding the flow of the currents in the area. On their first trip out fishing into the Ocean, they find a sealed Thermos, but it is not assumed to be from the launch as it has different initials engraved on the base of the Thermos, used to keep tea or coffee hot for long periods of time while the men are out fishing. This proves to be a clue, however, as the dead man’s Thermos was broken on the morning of his disappearance, and he borrowed one from the hotel where he was staying, this being a brand new Thermos, only purchased recently and engraved with the initials of this hotel. It was recovered from the sea, along the direction of the flow of the currents.

Bony hooks up an average size marlin on his first trip out, and fighting this fish taxes his strength, taking a reasonable amount of time to bring to the gaff. Even though Upfield mentions the fish by their correct name, the different species of Marlin, they were all referred to collectively as swordfish.

There was beach netting for salmon, possibly an erroneous and generic name for a variety of fish also called tunny in this novel, and now referred to as salt water tuna. The most pointed reference, and there were a few throughout the book, was for porpoises, now not called that, but by their actual name of dolphins. Also in this vein, there is mention of tunny (tuna) and how the area positively floats on millions of them. The thing worthy of mention here is that one of the characters in the crew on the boat that Bony is hooked up with mentions that it’s a pity that they can’t sell them. Now, we take it for granted that tuna is always available and is in plenty, there being whole communities devoted only to the farming and production of tuna, now almost a staple in the diet of millions.

The attitudes towards aeroplanes also provided a bit of an insight. In this novel, they were referred to as being machines and seemed to be treated as any new thing is treated, something of wonder and not really expected to become the accepted way of things. Once I had the publishing time line correct, this then becomes quite logical, as the development of aircraft accelerated exponentially upon the outbreak of the Second World War, and aircraft development in Australia was still only in its early stages.

In this novel, Upfield also talks through his characters of some of the early the early history of Bermagui, and its evolution as a premier big game fishing place. This details the capture of the first swordfish, previously thought to be a species of shark until the sword was actually seen by a fisherman angling for tunny. Then, when the area became known as a good place for these marlin, the world began to take notice, this opinion firming following the visit of the legendary author and noted big game fisherman, Zane Grey, who is also mentioned in this novel. As was the case later, Zane Grey became a regular visitor to Bermagui and surrounding areas following his hobby for big game fishing.

There is an obscure mention of a place called ‘Sharg Grelah’, that legendary place from the movie ‘The Lost Horizon’, and obviously a reference to Shangri-la, the original of that movie coming out also between the Wars.

There is also a mention of the word ANZAC, the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps again also indicating the time setting of between the wars.

There was an added explanation for the two different spellings of the name for the town and the River. The word Bermaguee is of aboriginal derivation and means meeting place. The Postal Department (in those days named the PMG, standing for Post Master General, and affectionately called ‘pig making gravy’, as was the way of naming things in those days, whereas today we more often refer to just the acronym PMG) named the town Bermagui, using an altogether different, but similar spelling.

There is an interesting explanation of how the twin sister of one of the missing crewmen knows that he is still alive. She mentions that she used to feel his pain when he was caned at school, and that she used to come up in a red mark on her hand. On another occasion, her brother was knocked unconscious during an assault with a piece of wood, and that she knew about it the instant that it happened.  This is probably quite an insightful view, as, read in context, it just seems part of the story, and might tend to just slide straight by, but here you have to remember that the novel is a work of fiction, and that Upfield has just concocted it all from his own brain. Having said that, it is an observation he has made that was years ahead of its time., considering this novel was written in 1938/9.

There is an evocative explanation of how Bony captures a monster black marlin just as the bottom falls out of the barometer, indicating that the weather is turning foul, the worsening weather being translated directly from the barometer, and spoken in inches of mercury, as opposed to the way we measure it these days in hectapascals. Bony ‘hooks up’ and fights the fish as the weather rapidly worsens, but the crew is loath to let such a big fish loose, even if the weather is closing in rapidly. The fight with the fish is detailed over a number of pages and the battle ebbs and flows until the fish is finally brought to the gaff in the middle of a raging gale. The worsening weather necessitates that they shelter away from Bermagui, as the bar at the entrance to the river at Bermagui would be impossible to negotiate in the bad weather. They have to pull in at Wapengo Inlet and shelter with a rich man who has a huge home there, and has only recently come into the district. The passage across the bar at Wapengo is also explained in great detail. A shark comes up on the launch just after they make the safety of the inlet, and the marlin, previously being towed, is hauled aboard and lashed across the stern, the shark being fired upon to dissuade the attack on the fish. The marlin is estimated at weighing in at approximately five hundred and seventy pounds, and there is a direct quote of the record for that time being six hundred and seventy two pounds, caught by Mr J Porter in 1937. It took Bony 81 minutes to land the fish.

The Rockaway’s, who Bony and the crew shelter with are impressed with the catch and invite them to stay on board their launch, explaining that the house is being painted and extended at that time and unavailable to accommodate visitors. During their time at Rockaway’s, at Wapengo, Bony’s investigation breaks, with the finding of some vital clues, namely the missing Winchester point thirty two repeating rifle from the missing launch.

There is mention of the habit of cooling a hot cup of tea by placing small quantities of the tea in the saucer and then drinking it from that saucer.

Bony and the crew eventually get the catch back to Bermagui a day later. The fish eventually weighed in at five hundred and eighty one pounds and Bony was photographed with the fish on the triangle at the end of the jetty, this photo finding its way into the Sydney newspapers, and later coming back to Bony’s disadvantage, when it is discovered that he is in actual fact a DI with the Queensland Police, and is possibly at Bermagui to investigate the murder of Supt. Ericson, the now murdered ex policeman.

When Bony is talking with the mother of the missing crewman, and asking her how she is so confident that her son is not dead, she explains that many mothers did not believe their sons were dead as a result of the Great War, when because so many were killed and so often, correct recording was difficult at best, so they were listed as missing presumed dead.

When Bony and the crew are again at sea, there is mention of a lot of porpoises swimming with the launch, as we now know pods of dolphins are apt to do to this day. They also noticed that there were thousands of them also following a trawler whose crew were cleaning the haul after bringing it to the surface, the dolphins coming in for a free feed.

There is a pointed reference to foreign governments sending large fishing mother ships to the Australian coastline, and fishing for our stocks, taking them back to their home Countries, and then exporting these same fish in millions of tons back to Australia, where they were fished from in the first place, and I would susect quite strongly that this is obviously for Tuna, and this still happens to this day.

Bony also takes a big shark as well, and this is treated with disdain, as a swordfish is considered to be more of a prize.

As the investigation develops, Bony is kidnapped at gunpoint by Rockaway’s henchmen, after the Sydney newspapers break the story of his big catch, including with it in that story the fact that he is a detective in the Police Service. He is taken from his room back around the long way to Wapengo. He is questioned by Rockaway, who has now been exposed as a former English master criminal, and who also wants Bony’s brief case with the incriminating evidence in it. During this questioning, Bony goes berserk and kills one of the henchmen and is bashed unconscious in the process and he is then placed in an underground cave that doubles as a dungeon. In this place are also the two missing men from the launch, now very rough in appearance from their long and enforced imprisonment, and almost half crazed. They explain how Ericson was murdered, and the launch sealed and sunk so no clues could surface, the Thermos falling overboard when knocked by Ericson as he was shot dead and falling overboard. The two crewmen were also supposed to be shot and are only being held in waiting for a more suitable time. The men pass the time by playing five stones, a pointed reference to a child’s game, played with five stones, or, as was more often the case, dried out knuckle bones, mainly from cuts of meat from sheep, collected from numerous roasted lamb legs.

Bony’s absence is noted, and he leaves a timely clue that he has not left of his own accord. The crewmen of the launch he has hired follow him back to Wapengo in the launch and find the cave where the men are being held. Bony has already escaped by standing on the shoulders of the other two prisoners, and is in the house when his own two crewmen release the others and bring a large boulder down on the house. Others are racing to the scene, now aware that Bony has been taken, and hearing Rockaway’s car, a large ‘Southern Star’, late at night on a back road. Southern Star, here used in reference to a brand of car, is probably a made up name by Upfield, as I can find no reference to this type of vehicle.

By now, the berserk Bony is naked, and in the process of killing Rockaway with his bare hands when the boulder smashes into the house. There is a struggle and during this, the cavalry arrives just in the nick of time to save Rockaway’s life. Bony is somewhat ashamed that he has given in to his most base instincts by being found naked and trying to kill the man.

During the wash up and explanation, there is mention that Rockaway, his now assumed name, had previously vanished with a million pounds from England in 1927, making his money supposedly illegally, and his criminal henchmen also vanished with him. He was thought to have successfully evaded detection when he was recognised by chance by the now retired Ericson, whilst on a fishing holiday in the area. There is mention that money was spent like water on beam wireless and cable services between London and Sydney after the demise of Ericson.

Constable Telfer is given a lot of the credit for helping Bony to break the case, as is usually the case with Bony.

As is also usually the case, all the pieces of the jigsaw are not revealed until the last ten pages or so.

This is another of Upfield’s masterpieces, and the reading of this novel would not fail to leave a lasting impression upon the reader for the evocative way Upfield reveals not the major investigation, but for the carefully detailed way he weaves the narrative around the setting it is placed in.