Tony’s Notes From The Bony Novels (Part 6)

Posted on Fri 03/11/2011 by


The popularity of Upfield’s novels in the U.S.

Here you need to consider the time it takes for an author to work out a plot in his head, work through the early stages of writing the novel, and then the time taken for the administration, and then to get the novel to a Publishing house for acceptance, and then any reworking called for, and then acceptance, and then through the printing process, before the novel is finally released to book selling establishments.

When you take some notice of the Publishing details of Upfield’s novels, as shown in the Post at this link, you can see that those early novels were taken up by Hamilton’s in the UK for the first two novels, and then by Angus And Robertson Publishing in Australia for the next six novels, published between 1936 and 1940.

One of the obscure things that readers may not have noticed from that list, and really, not many people would look for it in the first place, is the uptake of these novels by American Publishing Companies, especially during the mid and latter stages of World War Two, and then into future novels.  Having noticed this, most people would not even wonder if there was a reason for this. It just happened that way would be the usual thinking.

However, from the Second World War onwards, most of Upfield’s novels were published in the first instance by Doubledays in the U.S. which might seem odd for novels with a distinctly Australian flavour, and any second and subsequent publications were done in Australia, and the UK.

Those early novels were (relatively) readily available here in Australia, mainly stemming from the events surrounding the Snowy Rowles case that brought Upfield’s second novel to a point of almost notoriety.

There was in fact an urban myth which was integral with the thinking about why Upfield became popular in the U.S.

That urban myth is along these lines. During the early stages of the War which had now started in the Pacific, American military personnel from every branch of the Service spent a lot of time here in Australia, mainly as an early staging point for deployment to U.S. theaters of operation in the Pacific, and also as R and R during lulls in the fighting as units were rested from the Front Lines. Those American military personnel were evidently large buyers of those earlier Bony novels whilst they were stationed here in Australia, mainly I would think for their crime fiction content more than for the esoteric nature of their Australian settings, and Aboriginal background, which I suspect had very little, if anything to do with any reason why they were popular amongst those U.S. servicemen. Those novels, once purchased in Australia, and begun to be read, and I then suspect not really finished, would have been taken back to the conflict theaters, and as is the way of most military members, those novels would have been shared around, and from my 25 years as a member of the Air Force here in Australia, even I remember how novels were shared around, and seldom, if ever, would you ever see that novel again. Because of that, whenever those military people were back in Australia on R and R, then these Upfield novels would have been sought out. The thinking was that it only stands to reason that when some of those men went ‘home’ back to the U.S. they took the novels with them, and thus they were introduced into the U.S. From that, you could build a case that an enquiry was made, an enquiry that would have probably then come from more than one source, and from that, a U.S. publishing house then set about getting hold of those books so that they could service their readers in the U.S. a vastly larger base of readership than what Australia was.

However, whilst a good ‘yarn’, it’s not really true.

Prior to the War in the Pacific even starting Upfield had actually been negotiating with Doubledays in the U.S. to have his novels published in the U.S. where Crime Fiction was in fact quite a large genre for publishers and they were always looking for new work. Upfield’s novels with his Bony character might seem on the surface to have a distinctly Australian flavour to them that might not be readily appreciated in the U.S. but if the novels were not good Crime Fiction in the first place, then they may not have been picked up at all. Some publications in that Crime Fiction genre in the U.S. could be thought of as being just pulp paperbacks, similar to those Westerns which were also popular at the time, but here, with these Upfield novels, they got the full treatment, released in hard back format with coloured dust jackets. Were they not good in the first place, they probably would not have received this treatment at all.

You only need to look at that list at the above link to find that some of those earlier Upfield novels were released prior to those U.S. soldiers arriving here in Australia, and in fact, of Upfield’s eight pre war novels, five of them were released by Doubleday during those war years.

From the end of the War forward, those Bony novels were in fact first published in the U.S. and that publishing house would have had some sort of deal with Upfield to get first options on those novels.

Because of this, from the end of the War forwards, Upfield escalated his writing and while earlier novels were relatively well spaced apart, from the end of the War, Upfield really started to pump them out.

When it came to U.S. military personnel acquiring these Bony novels during their time here in Australia, I would strongly suspect that one of those novels that would have been well received by those American servicemen would have been ‘The Mystery Of Swordfish Reef’, which was one of the most recently published novels here in Australia, and still quite readily available at those book selling establishments here in Australia.

One of the first of those Upfield novels published in the U.S. by Doubledays was in fact that same novel, and that was published as early as 1943, four years after Angus and Robertson first published it here in Australia. In that same year, two more of Upfield’s earlier novels were also published by Doubleday, ‘Wings Above The Diamantina’, (published as ‘Wings Above The Claypan’) and ‘Mr. Jelly’s Business’. (published as ‘Murder Down Under’) but ‘The Mystery Of Swordfish Reef’ was the first published in the US with the original title.

From that point onwards, most of Upfield’s novels were published in the first instance in the U.S. by Doubledays, and some under alternative titles to Upfield’s original title.

This now brings into some form of context the reference novel from the American Ray Brown, ‘The Spirit Of Australia’.

I always wondered about that reference book, because in places, where Brown describes those Upfield novels, it almost seems that the novel he was referring to was different to the one that I had read. That was most startling in ‘The Mystery Of Swordfish Reef’, where the discrepancies between the novel Brown was referring to and the original by Upfield seemed so much at odds.

The differing titles of some of those Upfield novels can be explained away with a particular original title from Upfield being more recognisable in Australia than it might be in the U.S.

Using similar logic, it might be explained that some of the text in those novels was also altered to be less Australian specific and more general in context.

In all, 18 future novels from Upfield were in fact first published by Doubledays in the U.S.

Only two of those future Upfield novels were not picked up by Doubledays, and the last novel, not completed by Upfield, and finished by two other authors after his death was also not picked up by Doubledays, again in a way reinforcing a belief that Upfield did in fact have a deal with Doubledays.

Of those earlier novels, Doubledays picked up all bar one of them.

In all, of all 29 Bony novels, Doubleday published all but three of them.

The last one that they published was Upfield’s very first Bony novel ‘The Barrakee Mystery, first published in 1929, and finally published by Doubledays in 1965, a year after Upfields passing.

Upfield in fact was so popular in the U.S. that he was awarded the top prize as a crime fiction author, the first non American author to be awarded this prestigious award. Upfield’s health precluded him from travelling to the U.S. to receive this award.

Later in the late 80’s and into the 90’s the same thing with respect to popularity happened, in of all places, Germany, where the Bony novels became almost wildly popular, and most of them were translated into German and published there.

A case could be effectively made that Upfield was in fact more popular outside of Australia than he was here in his home Country, but this would also be somewhat of an urban myth as well, because his novels were quite popular here in Australia, in a time before some political correctness seemed to take hold..