Book Review – The Battling Prophet – Arthur W Upfield

Posted on Tue 04/19/2011 by



First published – (UK) Heinemann – 1956

Second Publisher – (Australia) Arkon (A subsidiary of Angus And Robertson) – 1972

This Edition – Arkon – First Printing – 1972 (Red cover book)

This novel was also serialised prior to this first publishing in novel form by World’s News weekly in 1955.

This is an intriguing book, in many respects.

It deals with the politics behind, of all things, weather forecasting, and it does this in the early to mid 1950’s, and this needs to be kept in context with that time, as weather forecasting in those days was not the Science it is today, and there was nowhere near the amount of interest back in those days that there is now in all matters with respect to the Weather and Climate.

At first thought, it seems as if weather forecasting is just that, bland in the main, but here Upfield explains the reasoning behind it.

Accurate long range weather forecasting can be very helpful to farmers on the one hand, indicating that if a good rainy season is on the way, then they can get the crops in that they want, or restock with sheep or cattle.

On the other hand, if a poor season is indicated, then the farmer will let his stock holding roll back somewhat, thus affecting the cost of meat to the consumer, raising prices considerably.

Then, the consumer will pick the obvious person on whom to sheet home the blame, that being the politicians for raising the prices.

Hence, there is a chance that political parties can be thrown out of office, just because a long range weather forecaster predicts a lean dry season.

It also stands to reason that an accurate prediction could also lead to the possibility that crop farmers, knowing that a poor season is on the way,  might not buy the heavy farm equipment that they would need for a good cropping season. In this case, the importers of this high cost farm machinery would not have anyone to sell it to, and then they would be out of pocket, and who would they blame. They would also blame the politicians.

The banks could also be out of pocket if a farmer knows for sure that a poor season is on the way. Farmers might default on loans, or not take out loans for new equipment.

Whichever way you look at it, the blame will be sheeted home to the only source where the people have a say. The politicians. So, indirectly, this investigation gives Upfield a chance to have another of his digs at the political system, hence this investigation has a political background on numerous fronts.

So, accurate long range weather forecasting could lead to many connotations.

There is also the case that, as in this situation here, in the 50’s eat the height of The Cold War,  it might also lead to an unfriendly foreign power with access to this technology using the weather forecasts to find when it perhaps be a good time to invade another country, knowing that the weather would be on their side.

This novel brings to mind those three real life long range weather forecasters of early times, and recent times as one of these was at the height of his craft at the time, and how they were ridiculed for even suggesting that they could predict future weather patterns, by just going on previous records that they had kept meticulously, gathering data over many years.

These two were Clement Wragge and Inigo Jones, and Lennox Walker, who carried on with the work of those two men from earlier times, and having access to their great store of accurate data.

In this novel the murdered man is long range weather forecaster Ben Wickham.

This is the general premise of this novel that involves Bony.

He is on a holiday after solving a case in Adelaide. He takes the train from Adelaide to Melbourne, and leaves it at Murray Bridge, on the border of these two States, ostensibly to take a couple of weeks holiday. Again, he works incognito, and stays with a friend of the long range weather forecaster, who has died following a ‘bender’, an old and often used term to describe what actually happened in early days when people used to get on the grog.

The friend of the victim says that he did not die from a weak heart, but was murdered. basing this assumption on the way that his pal seemed to  recover from the bender, mentioning that he knows what sort of ‘heeby jeebies’ are involved with the recovery from all the differing form of alcohol that was consumed during the ‘bender’.

Bony finds this explanation difficult to believe, but is intrigued by it, and upon investigation, he finds that suspicious things happened prior to the death, from supposed natural causes, the body being cremated, so that avenue of investigation being effectively closed.

A lot of people seem to be blocking his investigation, and he is actively dissuaded from all points.

There is an early mention of the preceding case, involving Bony’s investigation into a smuggling case in Adelaide, and this could be a reference to a previous book, that being ‘The Clue Of The New Shoe’, which did involve smuggling and did involve a trip to Adelaide. This could also tie in with a mention of ‘300 pound Marlin’, a reference to ‘The Mystery Of Swordfish Reef’.

This however would not fit neatly into place, as in this case, Bony calls for the assistance of Alice McGorr, pointedly referring to ‘my Murray River friend’, and this comes after ‘New Shoe’, so the sequence cannot be verified from this source. Even so, if this story is placed immediately following ‘Murder Must Wait’, this would still put the time sequence out.

The case is further hindered, this time from official sources, politicians contacting the heads of Police in Adelaide, and from his own offices in Brisbane, where Superintendent Linton contacts Bony, entreating him to come back to Brisbane, post haste. He does this, subsequently leaving the train a little further down the track, and returning to the scene without the knowledge of anyone, except the victim’s friend and Alice.

The wording of the telegram entailed that Bony was not to be involved in ‘city crimes’, and had been made a DI some twenty years ago.

This book was published in 1956, and this statement would make the time of his appointment 1936, which would then throw into doubt the time frame of quite a few of his early cases. Here I might suspect Upfield is introducing some ‘author’s license’, as some readers not familiar with the time frame from those earlier novels might not add two and two together regarding that time span from those earlier novels. It might also be a situation now where Upfield has a character who has become immensely popular, and he wants to stretch out the novels as long as he can, relying in part that readers would buy the recent novels and not be aware of the earlier ones.

The recall telegram only served to reinforce Bony’s feelings that something suspicious has indeed happened, and that there was a cover up involved.

When he didn’t arrive in Melbourne after being escorted to the train in Adelaide by Superintendent Boase of the Adelaide Police, then all hell broke loose. When Bony contacted Alice in Melbourne, she then saw her stepfather, Superintendent Bolt, and he told her to go, and said that he would assist Bony as much as was possible in covering up his whereabouts, so that there would be as little trouble as possible.

Foreign Intelligence sources are alluded to quite strongly in this story, and these characters reinforce the currency of the ‘Cold War’ at the time of writing.

There is what can only be described as a pitched battle at the end, Alice showing herself to be something entirely different from the demure young thing she seems to be, throwing grown men around like sacks of chaff, beating up on all and sundry.

There is also a pitched gun battle, something very rarely alluded to by Upfield in other novels.

Spendor is now Chief Commissioner in Queensland, and Bony is carpeted in the end after solving the death and apprehending the murderers.

Bony effectively uses blackmail to work his way out of this trouble, which has turned out to one of the toughest spots he has ever been in.

He threatens to expose the SA Police, the local Police, the Security mob in Canberra, who Upfield portrays as shady characters, working with subterfuge and supposedly immune to all forms of Law, and here again, nothing changes much to this day. We did not invent supposedly lawful branches of criminal investigation who then operate outside the law. This also effectively shows the division of responsibility, devolving from one State Branch to another, as well as involving Commonwealth Instrumentalities, all claiming jurisdiction.

Here, Bony seems to be the only one who is entirely comfortable with the whole situation, and yet he is the one with most at risk. He threatens to expose everyone, and in so doing, calls the bluff of all and sundry. The matter is closed to the benefit of only one person, that being Bony, the rest of them walking away, wondering how he did it.

This again is another of those almost perfectly written yarns that Upfield has now become so adept at.