Book Review – Man Of Two Tribes – Arthur W Upfield

Posted on Wed 04/20/2011 by


MAN OF TWO TRIBES. (Also published under the title THE MAN OF TWO TRIBES.)

First published – (U.S.) Doubleday – 1956

Second Publisher – (UK) Heinemann – 1956 (Under the title of The Man Of Two Tribes)

Third Publisher – (Australia) Arkon (A subsidiary of Angus and Robertson)– 1972

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

This novel is set on and under the Nullarbor Plain that vast desert like plain covering a huge area of Southern Australia.

Bony arrives at the Police Station at the isolated township of Chifley, and here is where a minor anomaly arises, and I’m not all that sure it is an anomaly.

There is in actual fact a town called Chifley on the Nullarbor, but it is at the western end of the Plain. The Chifley that Upfield uses as his one horse town he places on the Eastern end of the Plain, still in South Australia, and this would tend to tie in with the distances mentioned and the times taken for the train to travel these mentioned distances.

It might also tie in closely with the mention of the close proximity of Woomera.

Along the Transcontinental Railway in the middle of the Nullarbor, the stations are indeed named after early Prime Ministers and other Politicians of note at that early time of writing.

Upfield correctly uses the names of some of these towns, or mostly stops, as some of them are now abandoned, but here he uses some author’s licence and names them in a form of order that they are not actually in.

Chifley, the scene of his arrival is actually closer to the Kalgoorlie end of the Plain, and some of the other stops he mentions are at the Eastern end of the Plain.

He also mentions the newly formed township of Woomera and the rocket range extending to the north, as well as the new atomic testing ground at Maralinga, just to the north of Ooldea, all these place names quite accurate, and in the general area of the story.

In actual fact, all these places are a thousand or so miles apart. The only discrepancy, and this is only minor in nature is the place names of the places the train goes through, and these are only inaccurate in the sequence that they may or may not be meant to be in.

At the speed that the train travelled at that time, approximately eighty miles per hour on the straight stretches, these places would be nearly twelve to fifteen hours apart. This, however does not detract from the story, as it is one of the few stories where Upfield actually uses real place names, and not ones he invents for the purposes of the story.

He arrives at Chifley and is met by Senior Constable Bob Easter, and his wife Elaine.

Easter has been following Bony’s career since the early days and Bony is a bit of a hero of his, so he is really chuffed to see that Bony has been assigned to the case of finding the missing woman, recently found not guilty of murdering her husband, a point that Upfield comments upon as the author, mentioning that the Justice system can be subverted by a pretty face and a story popularised by the press

(Nothing ever changes. The stories just vary.)

There is a discussion about how the disappearance could involve Security matters, seeing the proximity of Maralinga and Woomera, and the mention in the dead trappers notes of hearing a helicopter in the middle of the night, this raising suspicions, as there were not that many private helicopters around in those days.

This matter was brought up at a conference of Security people in Canberra, those erstwhile persons thinking that the disappearance may have something to do with Security matters.

At this conference, also involving the Police Services from some of the States involved, was Superintendent Bolt from Victoria, who mentioned that because of the vastness of the Nullarbor, then one man on the ground was worth much more than a fleet of jets flying around looking for the missing woman, or a helicopter that may have been involved in the disappearance, Bolt then suggesting that Bony would be the ideal man for the job.

Bony assumes the identity of a relative of a recently deceased trapper from the area of the story, and his intent is to recover some of his relatives belongings from the area where he laid his traps. This gives him the opportunity to search the area for the missing woman, setting off with the dead trappers camel and dog.

He comes across an old aborigine in the area and Bony reveals his tribal heritage by taking off his shirt and allowing the aboriginal to see his scars and tribal totem.

This also comes in handy later when he is again accosted by a decidedly unfriendly group of aborigines, when he again does the same thing, this time blessing ‘old Illawarrie’. (This is a misspelled reference toBony’s long term tribal mentor, Illawalli.)

Bony is captured, and he is forced into a subterranean ‘prison’, underneath the Nullarbor Plain, again a further of the many mentions of Upfield’s use of caves in his novels.

This group of caverns has been formed into a home of sorts and is quite vast in size, the occupants being unable to find a way out.

It transpires that the other imprisoned occupants are all convicted murderers who have all been released on parole, and have been placed into this ‘prison’, miles from nowhere, and totally inaccessible to all bar the aborigines who saw to it that they were placed into this place.

Bony knows the story of every man present, and remembers the matters surrounding each and every one of them.

Bony is decidedly not amongst friends, and he has to tread very diplomatically, just to stay alive.

Inside this place, there has been a further murder and Bony has to solve this crime, as well as find a way out to the real world.

The problem is exacerbated by the presence of the missing woman he was originally setting out to discover, and she is setting up little intrigues to further her own ends in an effort to escape.

None of the occupants has any idea as to why they are in this place.

Bony has to find a way out, and then lead these people to safety, this being a decidedly tricky matter, as none of the occupants, some having been there for numerous years, has any idea on how to escape, having tried before. In reality, none of them even know where they are, having some sort of vague idea that they may be on the Nullarbor, and thus, even if they could get out , they would not know where to go, and they would probably die in the process, so they are effectively caught between a rock and a hard place.

They call themselves the RMI, the Released Murderers Institute, and Bony is even made an honorary Fellow of this Institute, as the occupants affectionately accept him as one of them, some little irony being involved in this.

The aborigines on the surface keep those below well stocked with food and the essentials of life, so it is virtually a prison.

One of the prisoners is a doctor, and is quite well read. After the evening meal, he usually tells stories that he remembers. One of theses stories is actually mentioned in full, that being ‘The Mystery of Swordfish Reef’.

Television gets a passing mention, and that places this story close to the publishing date of 1956, as that is when television became relatively common in Australia, following the Melbourne Olympic Games.

Bony finds a way out and leads the people, all bar one, Doctor Havant, who stays behind, to safety. This is a tale of endurance, as he only has a vague idea of where to go, and he is the only one who can do it. They are pursued by the unfriendly aborigines, and due to the heat, can only travel during the night.

The last section of the escape almost kills them, as it must be done during daylight hours, this being in the blazing sun.

There are descriptive passages of the conditions during their time of travel, and how the heat affects some of the people that Bony has with him, one mention being that of one of the prisoners who favours one leg slightly over the other, Bony instinctively knowing this from the mans tracks. He is dropped from the back of the line, and Bony has to go off in search of him, and because he favours one leg, he eventually walks around in a large circle. There is also a descriptive passage of a wind storm.

It transpires that all these men were being kept in the underground chambers as a method of bush justice by one of the nearby station owners, who had a close relative who was murdered by one of them, and as a form of their own personal justice, is keeping all the released murderers they can find for themselves in this prison for the rest of their days.

Along the way, Bony solves the underground murder, the case of the missing woman, and the reason that they were all being kept in captivity.

The helicopter mention from the start is resolved when Bony discovers that there is indeed a private helicopter, owned by the son of the Station owner, his having this knowledge from the war, which leads me to believe that the war mentioned was The Korean confrontation, as helicopters were in more prevalent use during that conflict than they were during WW2, when they were virtually unheard of, dating this story post 1952, and closer to the date of publication.

In closing, after Dr. Havant is rescued, there is talk of holding a yearly reunion of the RMI. Bony is asked if he would attend these reunions, replying that he would be honoured to do so, an irony in itself, Bony being accepted by the very people he is sworn to apprehend.