Book Review – The Widows Of Broome – Arthur W Upfield

Posted on Mon 04/11/2011 by



First published – (U.S.) Doubleday – 1950

Second Publisher – (UK) Heinemann – 1951

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

When it comes to million selling novels, the Bony novels of Arthur W Upfield would not even be thought of. What is quite surprising is that those Upfield novels did sell quite well. Some people from Australia might think in an Australian context, and to sell one million copies of any book in Australia would be quite an achievement indeed, as Australia only has a population of 22 million, a number that was considerably less when these novels were first published.

As well as those novels must have sold here in Australia, they were, and in fact still are, quite popular outside of Australia.

In Germany, where the novels are very popular, those 29 of Upfield’s novels in this Bony series have sold more than one million copies in total, when all 29 of them are added together.

However it would still be hard to imagine one novel in isolation selling more than one million copies.

Upfield’s novels were extremely popular in the U.S. and in fact sold very well in the long gone heady days when Doubleday could not get their hands on them fast enough.

This novel, ‘The Widows Of Broome’, is one Upfield novel that actually did sell more than one million copies on its own. This was in the U.S. approaching the height of Upfield’s popularity. That is a surprising thing, as I would be tempted to believe that not many Australians would actually be aware of that fact.

This novel is set in Broome, which is a medium sized town in the North West of Western Australia. It is now World famous for its Pearls, and in fact has a long history in that Pearling trade, dating back to 1880. Other than Pearling, Broome is now a popular tourist destination, and in the tourist season, the population more than triples.

Bony is sent to investigate the murder of two widows in Broome, and not long after he arrives, a third murder of another widow is committed during the early stages of the investigation.

Bony now has to work under a time constraint to catch the murderer before any further murders are committed.

Again, he works undercover, this time using the alias of Mr Knapp. He is however known as a detective by the local police presence, Sub Insp Walters, and as is the case with most of Bony’s investigations, the career of this local police presence is enhanced, just by having Bony’s name attached to an investigation in his jurisdiction.

There is no mention of other cases save for the reference to Doctor Fleetwood and ‘coffin dust’ from the book ‘An Author Bites The Dust’.

Detective Sergeant  Knowles also gets mentioned. He is now stationed in Brisbane, working under Colonel Spendor, Bony’s long suffering Superior. This is a direct reference to helping further the career of a policeman in an area where Bony is carrying out an investigation, as Knowles was the local Police presence in the first of the Bony novels ‘The Barrakee Mystery’ back in 1929.

There are two or three specific obscure mentions to a problem that looks to be rearing its ugly head, and that is the problem that aborigines seem to be having with regard to petrol sniffing. What needs to be mentioned here is that this novel is set in the 1950’s. This particular worrying trend started to become a problem following the end of the Second World War.

What is significant here is that here Upfield specifically mentions this in a novel set in, and written during, the 1950’s.This has become a major problem in aboriginal communities and is perceived to be a recent thing, but here Upfield explains its existence long before it actually became widespread knowledge.

Bony again employs modern forensic technology in the investigation of this series of murders, forensics also not coming much to public notice until a much later time.

There is a descriptive chapter where Bony describes a school social at a private boys school where the boys are having a function with all the parents in attendance, and this setting provides Bony with some clues, but as is the case with Upfield, these clues seem only for Bony’s edification, and it is so unobtrusively put, that you do not realise that these were in fact clues until the culmination of the novel.

This again shows the subtlety of Upfield the author. These days, the clues have to be virtually delivered up to the reader on a plate, and these earlier detective fiction novels of his provide a further glimpse into the articulate way that the author has crafted his novel.

In an effort to protect the local women, Bony calls for further reinforcements from Perth.

He also employs the services of an aged man who has the wisdom beyond what perceptions of  those in the local community give him credit for. The perception is that he is just an old ‘dero’, living from one Government payout to the next.

That term, ‘dero’ was applied to homeless men, down on their luck, usually drunks.

In actual fact, he is quite an erudite, articulate and highly educated old gentleman in the true sense of the word. He is almost a prefect choice as an assistant for Bony, as he is only perceived to be what he has always been taken for, and under the sympathetic direction of Bony, ably assists in the investigation, while maintaining the appearance of a harmless old homeless drunk.

At the climax of the novel, Bony catches the murderer in the act of his latest murder. In this case however, the woman has the protection of a steel collar secured around her neck. This is the second time that Upfield has used this form of catching the murderer in the act.

Bony is also waiting in the same room, which is in the dark, so he is not able to be seen by the killer. He then proceeds to take a photograph of the murder in actual progress, sort of like the ‘smoking gun’ analogy.

Again, this novel is the work of an author who seems to have reached the pinnacle of his craft, and then proceeds to extend the boundaries even further.