Book Review – The Bachelors Of Broken Hill – Arthur W Upfield

Posted on Tue 04/12/2011 by



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

Second Publisher – (Australia) Invincible Press – 1950

Third Publisher – (UK) Heinemann – 1958

Fourth Publisher – (Australia) Arkon (a subsidiary of Angus and Robertson) – 1983

This Edition – Eden Paperbacks (An imprint of Angus and Robertson) – 1987

Copyright – Bonaparte Holdings Pty Ltd – 1958

While I mentioned in the Preface to these Reviews that I would not be giving much away about the novels, this is one occasion where I have in fact detailed most of what happens, mainly because this is fast paced novel that builds up considerably all the way through, and a bland statement of some of the contents does not give the build up of excitement as the text unfolds.

This is another of those novels I had a little trouble in tracking down, and because of that, I originally read the book out of sequence with the time frame that Upfield wrote the novels in.

The setting for this novel is Broken Hill, a large city in Outback New South Wales, almost on the border with South Australia. Broken Hill is in a huge mining area. It had the World’s largest deposits of Silver, Lead and Zinc, and is the home of Australia’s largest Company, The Broken Hill Proprietary (BHP) now one of the largest mining Companies on Planet Earth, BHP Billiton.

Upfield himself spent a great deal of his early life in Broken Hill, and this was the first large city he saw in Australia. Arriving in Adelaide in 1910, he spent very little time there upon his arrival, leaving virtually immediately for the job he was going to take up at Broken Hill.

Bony actually mentions that he is being harried by his Department in Brisbane, and mostly by his Chief Commissioner (the venerated Colonel Spendor) for the last twenty odd years, which fits in nicely with his first case, which was set in the late twenties.

In this novel, Upfield is actually specific with the date, something he did not do in those earlier novels. That date is late in 1949, when the murders are actually committed, and Bony arrives on the scene early in 1950.

Upfield further explores another subject touched upon in some of his earlier novels. While Bony in most cases enhances the careers of those local Police presences,there are occasions he has had very unfavourable opinions of some of the Police he has to work with, mainly others sent in from outside the local District to clean up a case that the locals cannot, and Bony looks ‘down his nose’ at them, and makes no pains about his dislike of them, and the way they go about their investigation.

In the novel ‘An Author Bites The Dust’, Bony has an unfavourable association with a fellow DI, this one being DI Snook of Melbourne. In the  ‘Winds Of Evil’, Bony has an unfavourable association with another fellow Detective, this one being DS Simone, coincidentally, sent down from Broken Hill, which is the the setting of this novel. What leads me to mention this is that in this novel, Bony again has another unfavourable association with a fellow Detective, this time one who has been sent down from Sydney, this one being DI Stillman.

The novel is also another of the few novels where Upfield does not use the aborigines as part of the story, save to mention them as trackers in the middle part of the story.

It is an investigation where Bony is working almost out of his element, the Australian bush, as this novel is set in Broken Hill.

The novel details the investigation into two similar murders of bachelors, poisoned with cyanide, and dying quite suddenly, meaning that the poisoner was at the scene to administer the poison, almost at the time of instant death, the murders being accomplished in broad daylight, with a crowd present at the scene, a very daring crime.

Bony arrives as Bona Knapp, an alias seen right through by the chief of Police at Broken Hill, one Superintendent Pavier, who is overjoyed to see Bony, but secretly disgusted at his attitude towards his own superior, (Spendor) who has given him two weeks leave of absence to tidy up these murders. Bony has with him on arrival a letter from Spendor accentuating the fact that he wants Bony back in a fortnight, and a letter from Pavier’s chief in Sydney, seconding Bony for the investigation.

Early on in the scene, Bony meets a burglar fresh from a burglary in Sydney, where netted considerably more than he expected, forcing him to leave Sydney, for Melbourne, that route being cut off at the border, at Albury, when there was a pronounced Police presence following the escape of a lunatic murderer from an asylum in Melbourne, a person called by his stage name, The Great Scarsby, who appears later in this novel.

On threat of exposure, Bony persuades the friendly burglar to work with him on this investigation.

The description of Bony’s relationship with this small time criminal who goes by the name of ‘Jimmy the Screwsman’ evokes memories of the relationship between Callan and Lonely in the Television series ‘Callan’, even to the point that Jimmy is uncomfortable when in the presence of Bony, as was Lonely, who became most decidedly uncomfortable when in the presence of Callan, a point that Callan always seemed to comment upon in a most derogatory manner, as Lonely used to sweat profusely, this producing a pungent body odour.

Bony is assigned Detective Sergeant Crome as an assistant and Crome does most of the legwork  with the help of one of his Constables, Abbott, curiously named when you take into account the naming of Napoleon Bonaparte. (Taken from the large reference book on the Great Emperor, written by Abbott).

This case was originally investigated by one Inspector Stillman, a detective sent down from Sydney. During the process of the original investigation, Stillman proved himself to be a bumbling, heavy handed, arrogant fool in a similar mould of a previous adversary of Bony’s, one DI Snook, of the Melbourne CIB.

Jimmy Nimmo, the burglar, mentions that he was previously associated with Bony, when he also helped him on a case in Adelaide, during the war. (This being World War 2, as the time frame here in 1949 places this story prior the Korean conflict.) Nimmo had committed two burglaries and Bony approached him to commit a third, where all he had obtained was a bundle of letters, enough to put two men and a woman behind barbed wire. This does not lead back to any other novel previously published.

There is mention of 6PM closing of all Hotels, mentioned here as the ubiquitous vernacular term so popular at the time, ‘The Six O’clock Swill’, and this is where a third poisoning occurs while Bony is at Broken Hill.

Even though the bar was locked immediately and the Police contacted, there is still no clue as to the identity, other than it could be suggested that the perpetrator was a woman, all descriptions of this woman being quite vague, even though witnesses close by all had a pretty good handle on all the persons in the vicinity of the murder.

There is an attempt at a fourth murder, this time of a bookmaker on the main street, Argent Street, when the bookie stops to drink from a water fountain, this fountain having a metal cup secured to the base of the structure. He is distracted before drinking, and his dog drinks the water, subsequently dying immediately. The cup and its contents of water are preserved by a passer by, also helping Bony in the investigation. There is again a vague description of a woman in the vicinity, but all attempts to identify this woman, and correlate her with the descriptions of the woman seen at the other three murders come to no avail, as all descriptions of this woman seem to differ.

Superintendent Pavier’s son is a journalist, and he is also helping Bony with this case. Pavier’s secretary is one PCW Lodding, and she has been taking the odd day off here and there, and Bony deduces that the time she has been taking off closely relates to the times of the murders.

The finger of suspicion falls on her, but only temporarily as she is subsequently found murdered. Bony finds out about this murder, and solves this case, virtually in seconds, and almost in one continuous sentence, much to the astounded astonishment of all those listening in, making it sound almost inconsequential to his, the main, investigation.

The murder of PCW Lodding was committed by the escaped lunatic murderer from Melbourne. Upon reflection, Bony is intrigued, and tries to fit the two, supposedly unrelated, crimes together. This he does by contact with Melbourne, London, and the United States.

The lunatic is the once great magician, The Great Scarsby, Tuttaway by name, and the fact that he seems to be in Broken Hill, brings interest from all over. The case now has an element of haste, as Bony is being ‘persuaded’ to return to Brisbane, and it looks like the dreaded DI Stillman is coming down from Sydney to solve the crime that Bony has already solved, most likely thinking that Bony, having done all the work for him, then all he has to do is to make the arrests, and bask in all the reflected glory, Bony having been ignominiously sent packing back to Brisbane, hopelessly out of his depth, out of his natural bush surroundings, where he has solved nothing but simple, and easy, crimes, only this time having failed to produce the goods. As is the case, this never happens.

A seemingly minor clue sees Bony discussing a minor find with some boys near the house of Lodding and her sister, who it turns out was once associated with ‘The Great Scarsby’, in London, prior to the war.

Bony pumps the boys who made the find with cakes and lollies and soft drinks, artfully extracting the information he needs to hear. In this discussion he mentions that the Australian cricket team will give the English a hiding in the upcoming cricket series, the English in actual fact touring Australia later that same year, and suffering a four one beating to an Australian team without Bradman for the first time, ably led by Lindsay Hassett, and only losing the last test of the series, the second Melbourne test.

There is a meeting between Stillman and Bony, this meeting being decidedly icy, Stillmann lording it over the supposedly hapless Bony, on the evening that Bony solves the crime. Bony leaves Stillman in the office, and he goes out to dinner with Crome, his Constable, (Abbott), Pavier the younger, (journalist) and Jimmy Nimmo, the burglar. This is supposedly Bony’s last supper, and during the course of the meal, Bony discusses the prospect of solving the crime that very night. Crome and Abbott are astounded that Bony is using the erstwhile Jimmy as his main assistant, a fact also found astounding by Jimmy himself, that he should be working so closely with the Police, you know, honour amongst thieves, that sort of thing.

After the meal, Bony and Jimmy enter the house of PCW Lodding’s sister, and await the climax. PCW Lodding was at one time the assistant, under training, of Tuttaway, The Great Scarsby, and the sister, also a former assistant of the magician, and sensing the future danger for her sister, took her off to Australia while Tuttaway was on a tour of America, prior to the war. The sister subsequently married, hence having a name different to that of the former PCW, Muriel Lodding.

Upon his return, Tuttaway was shocked to find them gone, and did all he could to locate them, eventually coming to Australia himself. Unable to trace the two women, he then had to train a new assistant, whom he ended up killing, and after his capture and court case, where it was proven that he was a lunatic, he was locked away ‘at His Majesty’s Pleasure’, escaping and finally tracking them to Broken Hill, where he killed Lodding with a glass dagger, the blade breaking off in the wound, hence the lack of blood at the scene of her death.

It ends up that the sister is the one who has been committing the murders of the bachelors, mainly because of their sloppiness in eating, a trait that Tuttaway had, reminding her of that detested person. She accomplished these murders by virtual sleight of hand, having a cyanide filled syringe, and with this syringe, in conjunction with a baby’s dummy attached, she was able to squirt the contents directly into the mouths of her victims, accomplishing the deed in a fraction of a second, and so quickly that even witnesses would not be able to see what had actually happened. She was also a master of disguise, having used this disguise training when she was Scarsby’s assistant, so, if there were any witnesses, they would give conflicting reports as to her identity.

As Bony and Jimmy are in the house, Tuttaway calls, also in disguise, this being as a minister of religion, so that he would look a little more inconspicuous, as no one would look twice at a  man of the cloth. This is the first meeting between Tuttaway and the sister. Bony and Jimmy hold station, awaiting what will surely happen. She gets him a glass of beer, which he slowly drinks, all the while talking, knowing that he will kill her with another of his glass daggers.

As he rises to do the deed, she squirts the liquid into his mouth, Tuttaway not even aware that this has happened. He collapses, dead as Bony lunges for the knife, also unaware that she has squirted the cyanide directly into the mouth of the dead man. Having now killed the man she most hated, she now confesses.

The following morning, Bony is called into Superintendent Pavier’s office to reluctantly be given the sack and told to get back to Brisbane. Stillman is also in the room to gloat, and then to tie up the loose ends, Bony having already done all his hard work for him, leaving him only to bask in the glory of having been the one who solved the case.

Bony enters and lays the case before an astounded, but, none the less, overjoyed Pavier. Both cases have been completely solved, and Bony commends DS Crome and Senior Constable Abbott for their most able assistance.

Young Pavier, the journalist has his sensational blockbuster story, and Jimmy Nimmo is off the hook, so to speak. Everyone is overjoyed, except Stillman, totally ignored, and now with nothing left to do but run off back to Sydney, his tail firmly between his legs.

Bony mentions that he will see Pavier again when he returns for the wedding of Jimmy Nimmo and his lady friend at Favalora’s Café, a lady he met at Bony’s insistence, in the course of his duty as assistant to the great DI Napoleon Bonaparte.

This is another of those astounding stories that start so slowly and shows so little promise only to become a magnificent blockbuster when Upfield brings it all together in the last few pages.

Arthur Upfield, seemingly reaches the pinnacle with each novel, only to extend the envelope with each new novel.