Book Review – Death Of A Swagman – Arthur W Upfield

Posted on Wed 12/08/2010 by



First published – (U.S.) Doubleday – 1945

Second Publisher – (UK) Aldor – 1946

Third Publisher – (Australia) Angus And Robertson – 1947

This Edition    Arkon (A subsidiary of Angus & Robertson) – 1972 (Red cover book)

I mentioned in an earlier Post at this link about Swagmen. Now, in the period of time many decades after the fact, Swagmen have been in the main forgotten, but at the time, they were quite common across the length and breadth of Australia. In fact, they were used as a form of itinerant workforce. They tramped from place to place throughout Australia, and were used as that day labour work force in many areas, and this novel details that quite effectively. The reference in this day and age now might be in the form of ‘Backpackers’ who perform the same sorts of tasks that those swagmen of old did. However, what needs to be also taken into account is that there were two main types of swagmen.

The real swagmen had some sort of moral virtue to the way they did things. Understanding that ‘there is no such thing as a free lunch’, those real swagmen turned up early in the morning, and asked the farmer or whatever if there was any work going that needed doing. The farmer would then put them to work for the day. As payment, they would then be offered the evening meal, and more often than not a place to sleep for the night, usually in one of the out buildings on the farm where the swagman would unroll his swag and sleep for the night on the bedding he would carry with him in that swag which held all his worldly possessions while he was ‘on the tramp’.

There was a second form of swagman, this one with less moral virtue than the ‘real swagman’. These were aptly called ‘Sundowners’. What they would do was turn up at Sundown, after the work for the day has usually been completed, and then ‘mooch’ a free meal and a place to stay for the night, and then be gone by morning, effectively getting a free meal and a place to sleep without having worked to earn that. Although similar in nature, the one did not associate with the other, and in fact, real swagmen held Sundowners in contempt.

This story is set in outback NSW, and Bony works incognito, as Robert Burns, a stockman, and only the local policeman, Sgt Marshall and his deputy, Constable Gleeson know his true identity.

Bony comes to the town incognito and is arrested at the doors of the local pub, allegedly giving lip to the local Policeman. He is duly arrested, and placed in the cells. The daughter of the local Policeman visits him in the cells and tames this allegedly ‘vicious criminal’. Bony then enters the Police Station, presents his papers and the now highly embarrassed Policeman is in a bit of a spot. Bony plots with the Policeman to be arraigned and sentenced to detention for a period of time equivalent to the time it will take to whitewash the fence of the prison compound. The Policeman then tees it up with the Magistrate. Bony also thinks that this will rightly help him with his alias, and the people of the town will more readily accept him more as an unfortunate tramp, rather than the Policeman that he really is.

This description is one that Upfield himself knew of from his travels in the Australian bush, a case of the local Police presence getting work done that the Government would not pay real workers to do, as the work was considered to be too demeaning for real workers. The so called prisoner was more often than not a swagman on the road. He was paid a small amount for the work, fed by the wife of the Policeman, and given time off and some money for a couple of beers at the local pub, and slept in the cells at night. Once the task of work was finished, his ‘term of imprisonment’ ended, and he moved on. It was not a widespread practice, but one that was in some sort of vogue at the time, and indeed was another of those things used by real swagmen as they moved around the Country.

There is no mention in this novel of any other investigations.

Bony again employs aboriginal methods to solve this, and two further murders, seemingly not associated with the original investigation, but linked in this case.

Again there is also mention of a cap being worn backwards, something that has now been mentioned frequently in these earlier Upfield novels, spanning now what is 15 years, so it would seem that the current trend is not something new.

The region where the story is set is beautifully explained in great detail, with reference to the sand hills of the area, and how they are called ‘The Great Walls Of China’. These dunes move across the land over time, effectively covering any clues that may have been left at the time of the original crime having been committed.

The earlier analogy Upfield uses of the fish and the sting ray also rate a mention in this descriptive tale.

Bony is forced to work quickly at the end, as the daughter of the local Policeman, the one Bony met at the start of the story, is kidnapped, and Bony has to rescue the young kidnapped girl before harm comes to her.

There is also an ingenious method used as a form of coded messages that is explained in this book, and this is the original reason that attracted Bony to this case in the first place. He saw a photograph of the site of the original suspicious death. This photograph showed the door of the outstation closed, and the chalk message was displayed on this door. This ingenious code is explained with the aid of a diagram in this novel. At first, this looks like a seemingly meaningless game of Noughts and Crosses, with some extra doodlings on the game that may indicate that the players were pondering their next move. The diagram in question here was on the door of where the dead man was discovered.

However, there is a distinct meaning to this particular drawing, and the code is quite intricate and involved, explaining numerous things about the area where the code is displayed.

Upfield himself was aware of this form of communications during his numerous travels throughout the Australian Bush, and he uses his character, Bony, to explain the meaning.

In this instance for this novel, this was a special code used only by the second form of Swagmen I mentioned above, those Sundowners. It was a form of communication amongst themselves indicating information about the particular farm or area where the code was displayed. It was done in chalk, so it could be added to or have parts of it erased as things changed in that particular area. It was in fact in quite widespread use across the Country. It was placed on surfaces not readily visible be most people, and seemingly so innocuous, did not have much attention paid to it, but was something Sundowners were specifically looking out for.

There were two versions of cipher used, one by those real swagmen as a form of communication amongst themselves to tell other men they have not met or do not know some things about the local area. In fact, Bony, when explaining this particular cipher to the Police Sergeant, Marshall, explains that he found another code, (this one from the real swagmen themselves) on the far side of town that indicated Marshall was not a hard Policemen, and in fact was amenable to utilising swagmen as a form of itinerant work force in return for meals and board and a small amount of money, and explains how Bony set in train his original method to work under cover on this investigation.

This second cipher, that of the Noughts and Crosses, was only utilised by Sundowners, and, over the years had become more complex in nature, telling more about the area in question.

The Sundowner’s Coded Cipher

This diagram was in fact placed in plain view on the main door of a building because it was an urgent message to all Sundowners, as well as for swagmen who had an understanding of the diagram, while to others, it just looks like a game of Noughts and Crosses with extra doodlings.

This is only a part explanation of the whole diagram, relating to this particular death in question.

In this case, the game is seemingly incomplete because of the missing mark in the blank square, and if you look closely, there are more crosses than noughts, each indicating something in the square in which it is placed.

The semicircle at the left of the top horizontal line indicates this farm will give you meat as part of the meal.

The quarter circle attached to the inner corner of the top horizontal line and the left perpendicular line indicates dead or death.

At the top of the right perpendicular line is a small angled line indicating that something was brought to this place, in this case, the body of the hanging dead person, seemingly a suicide on the surface. At the bottom of that same perpendicular is an inverted arrow, and this indicates the Police.

The other three marks at the ends of the lines, and in the bottom right square corner are not pertinent to the investigation, but they also have an explanation.

However, the biggest indicator on this coded message is the centre square where the cross has been overlaid with a circle, (or vice versa) This indicates to the Sundowner, or to the swagmen who stumbles upon this that this is a clear ‘danger’ warning.

So, translated, this cipher means that a dead body has been brought to this hut, and for all who see this sign, then the intent is for them to get out of this area fast, and to touch nothing at all because the police will be investigating. The animal part here refers to the fact that a sheep was slaughtered and the blood used to confuse matters.

Bony saw the image in the form of a photograph, and knowing exactly what it meant, he then came to the area to solve the murder, ostensibly presumed to be a suicide of an itinerant swagman. Bony, seeing this code knew positively that someone had seen what had happened, and had then left this distinct message to all other swagmen and Sundowners.

His task upon arrival was to find whoever placed that message for information purposes, the problem exacerbated by that person who did place that message, while not the murderer, did see what happened, and feels that if he is found out, then he also is in danger.

Upfield, in his text, seemingly points the finger towards an obvious target, and a sympathetic Bony then has to not only prove that this person is not the culprit, but has to do it before a lynch mob mentality takes over, especially following the kidnapping of the much loved little girl, daughter of the respected Police Sergeant.

This is, again, another of those Upfield novels that seems to be so laid back, and yet so deep. Upfield is a master story teller, and you get sucked in without even realising.