Book Review – Sinister Stones (Cake In The Hat Box) – Arthur W Upfield

Posted on Mon 04/18/2011 by


SINISTER STONES (Also published under the title Cake In The Hat Box)

First published – (U.S.) Doubleday – 1954

Second Publisher – (UK) Heinemann – 1955 (under the title Cake In The Hat Box)

Third Publisher – (UK) Pan Books (In association with Heinemann)  – 1958

This Edition – Pan Books – Seventh Printing – 1975

This book was originally published by Doubleday in the U.S. with the alternate title of ‘Sinister Stones’, and the television title was ‘Boney and the Black Opal’.

This novel has a couple of quirks that I will mention first before I get into what the story is about.

The first quirk directly concerns the title itself.

There is probably no real way to know what title Upfield preferred, but I might suggest that ‘Cake In The Hat Box’ would have been the one he went with originally.

When you read the title, you immediately think of what it actually says.

Cake ………. in the hat box, and this is something that is actually reinforced later on into the book, when Bony visits a homestead, and the lady of the house actually does keep a cake in a hat box, mainly to keep it hidden from the aboriginal house helpers. This would then be the literal statement.

However,the title is from an old saying popular at the time, about very rich people, and how they were referred to by those with a lot less money, and from lesser positions in society.

The double meaning of the title is found out when Bony hears an older person refer to one of the characters in the novel, One of the local land owner, who is very, very rich, and mentioning this by saying ‘he has more cake than Croesus’.

Croesus is a king from Greek Mythology who was rich beyond magnitude, and the saying is still relatively common even to this day in the UK, where a wealthy man is referred to as being ‘as rich as Croesus’.

‘Cake’ is an old Australian slang term for money, so the saying, ‘more cake than Croesus’ can be translated as meaning that the person in question is a very rich man.

Now, where the title comes in is that Bony discovers that the lady in question keeps her money, and also some other of her valuables in the hat boxes, hence ‘Cake in the Hat Box’.

I might go so far as to suggest that the American publisher Doubleday asked Upfield for a title that was more obvious in its meaning, and not so esoteric, as this one seems on the surface. For the second Publisher, Heinemann in the UK, the term was relatively well understood, as the term would have originated in the UK, and then been added to in Australia by the further addition of the slang terminology, ‘cake’.

For the TV series, again, the esoteric nature of the title, using a term relatively common at the time of writing would have fallen out of popular knowledge when the TV series was made in the mid 70’s.

The second quirk is that Upfield either seems to have written this novel out of sequence, or it was published out of sequence. What leads me to believe this is that right near the start, Upfield makes a specific reference to the direct previous case, and how he does this is by mentioning that Bony is returning to his home State immediately following his completion of that previous case, that being the story narrated in the ‘Widows of Broome’.

The passenger aircraft he is taking back to his ‘home base’ develops a faulty engine, and he has to book into the local hotel at the township near where the plane had to land following the faulty engine being discovered.

At other points throughout this novel, that same previous case is mentioned, and Bony is quite well known throughout this district for this recent success in solving that particular case.

In actual fact, there are 5 novels between the these two cases supposedly following on, one from the other. This is the only time Upfield did this, so I’m tempted to believe that this novel is one he may have actually written following ‘The Widows Of Broome’, but he held on to it for some reason, known only to him.

This investigation is into the murder of the much disliked local Police Constable Stenhouse, and the murder is made to look as if it was committed by the Constable’s aboriginal tracker, and here is where Upfield again introduces the aboriginal element into the case.

Bony finds out that the modified, but still left hand drive jeep that the body of Constable Stenhouse was found in was moved hundreds of miles across very tricky desert sandy roads, to finally end up in a place where he was not meant to be, a fact quite well known, as Stenhouse specifically said that he was headed hundreds of miles in an opposite direction.

The aboriginal element is introduced when it is mentioned that the tracker looks to be the most likely suspect, as he has vanished with the rifle that the Constable had with him in the jeep.

If the aboriginal tracker is the murderer, then the aborigines perceive this as losing face for them as a whole, and they are also ‘in the frame’ as looking for the murderer, to exact their own form of justice for bringing their good standing in the community into disrepute.

There is a minor sub plot involving two tribes of aboriginals, one relatively assimilated into the community, and the other still quite wild, and there looks like there might be a tribal fight if Bony does not solve the case relatively quickly.

Upfield mentions the use of smoke signals that the aboriginals use to communicate amongst themselves from a distance. He has occasionally mentioned this in some of his other novels, but in this, he goes further into detail on their use and meaning from the translation of the ‘smokes’, using this one word instead of the two word term smoke signals.

Again Bony uses modern forms of forensic detection during his investigation.

The first is the differing size of the holes that the bullets made in the body of Stenhouse, and also in the seat and the shell of the jeep he was in when he was supposedly shot and killed, because it is also quite well known exactly what type of Rifle Stenhouse prefers to use.

The second stems from the first, and that is the deduction of the calibre of the weapons used, working this out from the shells found, and the size of the holes made.

The next stems from the second point, and that is the deduction of how close the shooter was to Stenhouse when the shots were fired, the first killing him from a distance, and the second being fired through the same hole, but from a lot closer, to make it look like the second shot was the only shot fired, this being from his own rifle to set up ‘the frame’ on to the tracker.

The next is the type of weapons used, and from that, the possible owners of similar weapons.

It evolves that Stenhouse is not well liked, having treated his wife rather badly, possibly leading to her subsequent and early death. His wife was from this local area, so the family of the wife does not like him very much, and being a close knit community, this feeling extends into a larger community.

Stenhouse has evidently found out that another of the local families has struck it rich in some manner, and he is trying to blackmail them into letting him have part of the fortune.

So, the two land owner brothers set out to save themselves.

One of them kills Stenhouse in a rage, and in doing so, is mortally wounded himself, (conveniently tying up the case for Bony).

The tracker is also killed, and buried under the carcase of a dead horse, so the aborigines believe that the aboriginal tracker has been turned into a horse, and now their pursuit is not of the framed murderer, but of the murderer of their tribal fellow, to extract their form of aboriginal justice.

What the brothers found on their land was black opal, and, in the book, Upfield mentions that this is something that has not been known to exist in Australia up to this time.

He deduces this when he finds Kimberley Breen wearing a magnificent black opal. He then noticed the same setting in a photo or painting of her mother taken in 1902.

The Black Opal setting her mother was wearing in the portrait had been coloured with a black crayon, with a smear of red, presumably to give the impression that the daughter was wearing a piece of jewellery that had been handed down to her from her mother, and not a newer piece made specifically for her from a black opal that might have been perceived as being found locally.

Where this ruse fell down is that Bony mentioned that black opal had not been discovered at all prior to 1902, so it looked like there was something being covered up.

He also notices that Miss Breen seems to be dressed in exquisitely expensive clothing, costing somewhat beyond what the brothers must make from the sale of cattle throughout the year.

The brothers extract the opal. They then send down to Perth for numerous very large, very thick, leather bound volumes. These volumes come and go on a regular basis. It evolves that these volumes are hollowed out, filled with opal and sent down to a family friend who is a jeweller in Perth. He then sends back other precious stones, or money in the same hollowed out volumes. These stones and cash are then hidden away in the homestead, some in the sisters hat boxes, hence the title.

Bony also sees some of the black opal in one of these hat boxes, and is intrigued, because he is of the opinion that black opal is still not known in Australia at that time.

This also brings to rise the original title for this book, ‘Sinister Stones’, this title being used to deflect from the other, and more esoteric title, as was the title for the television series, that making it even all the more obvious.

The family cannot declare the find of opal, as it is on their land, and that would bring prospectors running from all over the country, and the issue of mining rights comes into play.

They would then lose their pastoral title to the land, as the mining rights are of greater import, and this brings with it the possibility of Company Mining coming to the area, and the connotations that come with that prospect.

They also cannot declare the opal, or the cash and gems and expensive clothing that they then buy with this, for taxation purposes, but the mining title problem is the one that Upfield mostly pursues.

They must stay as reasonably well off owners of a large and prosperous cattle station, and this is a minor point that pricks Bony’s attention, as they seem to be doing a little better than those other cattle people around the same district.

Stenhouse wanted even more of the pie, and he threatened to expose them, and in a rage, one of the brothers kills him.

There is mention of a constant stream of meteors in the night sky, almost every night, and not just in isolated sightings, but almost as if it was a constant shower. Bony mentions that the Kimberley (and here he does not use the dreaded letter ‘s’ at the end of the word Kimberley) might have something in it that attracts these meteors, a vague mention of buried radio active ore, surprising foresight for that time, well, before Uranium’s discovery at Rum Jungle in this area, and in this time, of not mining the Kimberley for uranium.

This also brings to mind that this area could be a huge magnet for these same meteors, something attracting them, and that being the iron ore itself, and later vastly huge deposits of Iron Ore were later discovered by Lang Hancock.

There is also a mention of Constable Irwin, (who helps Bony with this investigation, along with Clifford, who helped Bony with the recent investigation in Broome) who both sat and played five stones, a reference to a child’s game popular at the time called ‘jacks’, also previously mentioned in Upfield’s earlier writings. The ‘jacks’ in question were the dried out knuckle bones from sheep slaughtered for meat. This game was indeed almost endemically popular amongst children, bot boys and girls in Australia right up until almost the 70’s.

While I have concentrated here on the actual crime in this novel, there is still a relatively large part of the novel that has references to the aborigines, and again, Upfield shows his knowledge of the customs of the aborigines.

Bony mentions fishing for swordfish if he had the money from the sale of one of these black opals.

Oddly, there is also mention of Marie, Bony’s wife, that she plays the piano, and that Bony gave her a green opal when they were courting.

Bony also mentions his eldest son, Charles, still at University, and hoping to become a medico missionary, ironically, a son who has now been at University for nearly twenty five years.

Other than the direct mention of the immediately preceding case and the obscure mention of swordfish fishing, there are no mentions of any other cases.

Again, this is another of those wonderfully crafted Upfield novels.