Book Review – Bony And The Black Virgin – Arthur W Upfield

Posted on Fri 04/22/2011 by



First published – (UK) Heinemann – 1959
Second Publisher – (UK) Pan Books (In association with Heinemann)  – 1962
This Edition – Pan Books – Sixth Printing – 1978
Copyright – Arthur Upfield – 1969 (This seems somewhat anomalous as Arthur passed away in 1964)

There are a couple of minor anomalies here regarding the publishing details of this novel.

The first is that this is one of the few novels not picked up by Doubledays in the U.S. I have no firm idea on why that was, but I might mention that the title could have been one of the problems here.  The two specific words may have been not so palatable with US readers, those being ‘Black’, and ‘Virgin’.

In the novels around this period of time, Upfield either changed his title for the U.S. market or changed them for English and Australian markets, but I would tend to go with the former, as some of those U.S. titles do not really refer to the content of the novels as the alternate titles do. Given that, then it might be that Upfield did not really wish to alter this title, hence Doubleday did not take this novel.

The second publishing anomaly is again in reference to the title, as the novel was later published in the mid to late 90’s under the title of ‘The Torn Branch’, again imposing a form of Political Correctness on the perception of the title. I have seen a copy of this new title, and there is an explanation on one of the facing pages inside the cover that says something like ….. the views expressed in this novel with respect to women and to the aborigines are those of the author, and they do not reflect the views of the publisher.

In this novel, Upfield lays out the narrative in chapters as he always did, but in this instance he has further subdivided the book into three parts, the chapters still running consecutively, and not starting from chapter one in each subsequent part. Part One concerns the commission of the crime, and Part Two commences with the arrival of Bony, while Part Three details the investigation.

Also on one of the facing pages prior to the novel beginning is a hand drawn map of the setting for the novel, showing locations of the homesteads, and where the body was found, again showing Upfield’s attention to detail in adding something in the theme of the novel, as it would have been at the time, a simple hand drawn detailing of relevant points.

The novel is set in outback NSW, and concerns the death of what seems to be an itinerant man travelling from the North, possibly down from Queensland.

It has been made to look like the farmhand of the property committed the murder, as he has vanished, in extreme haste, with his bike and swag, only to be found much later, also murdered, and his body buried at the foot of a huge and slowly moving sand dune, fortuitously uncovered, and intriguing the local Police who can find no clues as to either murder.

Bony arrives to investigate, and works as himself in the full knowledge of those around him, staying with the main characters of the novel, the Downers.

There is a possible clue as to the time line early in the book when it is mentioned that the Downer’s arrived on their property way back in the thirties when the young boy was only a baby.

After the war, wool prices soared and the Downers came upon better times because of that.

The older man sent young Downer down to University with the prospect of becoming a doctor. Mother died and young Downer returned home to be a companion for his aging father, and to help him work the property.

Upfield mention the local aboriginal chief, (as he calls him) and he, along with his tribe, is a long way towards assimilation with the whites.

There is also mention of a previous case, one where Bony stayed with the daughter of one of the characters in this novel, a Mrs Elsa Stubbs of Wonleroy Station in Queensland, but this has not been mentioned in any other book.

The Olympic torch gains a mention, further narrowing the date down to post 1956, when the Olympic Games were held in Melbourne, this gaining some currency as being the talk at that time.

It is mentioned in this novel that Bony only has a Bachelor’s Degree, as opposed to the original mention of his obtaining an MA, also raising a slight discrepancy in the text from novel to novel.

Upfield has Old Downer mentioning the rabbit problem in a number of passages, which is another of those things that Upfield mentions often in his earlier novels.

To be different from his earlier prevalent mentions of this rabbit problem that was endemic across Australia, Upfield on this occasion has one of his characters suspicious of the plague loosed to control the rabbits. Here he uses the correct spelling, that of Myxomatosis, however he has his character saying that he thinks that the releasing of this virus has some subsequent and unplanned effect on the general population of people, this being caused as a flow on effect from the rabbits, as people were big eaters of rabbits in those earlier days. Even though it is explained to him that the virus cannot be communicated to the human population, Old Downer is not so sure, saying that he never knew so many people with respiratory problems before the virus was let loose.

He has this character endowed with some perception in the matter as well. He says that the virus did work to a certain degree before the drought came along and helped it along. He then goes on to say that after the drought when the rabbits multiply, the ‘quacks’ will release some other virus in an attempt to control the rabbits, and that this will also have some effect on the human population, possibly causing them to have rotten bones or white blood, and then blame that on the fallout, presumably meaning nuclear fallout.

In another passage, he has Downer ‘raving on’ again about the same thing. Old Downer disparagingly refers to Myxomatosis as the ‘wonder virus’, originally killing off the rabbits by the millions, but the surviving ones pass on their immunity to their offspring. He also mentions that there is really no hope of killing off all our Australian rabbits, adding that when the last man is blasted from the earth, the rabbits will still be running around licking up the radiation, continuing to say that if the rabbits weren’t being killed off, there would be something other than sheep for the foxes and dingoes to take. Here is a direct mention of something that was in common thinking at the time, that of a possible end result of The Cold War, that being a Hot War, with both sides using the huge overkill of nuclear weapons that would totally destroy the Whole World.

In fact, this was borne out at a later time when it was shown that the rabbits had indeed become immune to the Myxomatosis virus by passing that immunity down from generation to generation. Further, a second virus was indeed introduced into the rabbit population in an attempt to control them. This is the Rabbit Calicivirus, originally known as RKV, the Rabbit Kalesi Virus, something that did not happen until decades after Upfield’s death.

Again, Upfield explains the patience of Bony, gnawing away at every bone in an effort to bring any clue to light. He is meticulously searching an area in the way he always does by starting at a point and working outwards in ever increasing circles. During this search he comes across clues that would seem unobtrusive to any other casual onlooker, and he gradually ends up with tiny pieces that he puts together like a vast jigsaw puzzle.

He does find a tiny white horse made of plastic, a direct and early mention of plastic for a book written in the fifties.

Also, in this case, it provides the second title for the novel when it was released at a later date. He is meticulously searching the area for clues when he comes across what looks to be the trysting place of two lovers. In a clever effort to clean the place of all clues as to the real meaning of this place, the ground has been meticulously swept clean of all tracks and any other clues. However, the branch that was used for this deed was a leafy branch from a tee tree and none of these trees are found growing anywhere near this are. Bony finds the branch and his interest is aroused.

There is a mention of Superintendent Pavier of Broken Hill, harking back to the novel set in Broken Hill.

Another example of Upfield’s descriptive acumen is his narrative of the drought breaking in a passage describing the coming of a heavy rain. The men are overjoyed with the sound of the rain on the tin roof, and watch the lightning and the sheeting rain, later just turning on the tap to watch at first mud, then clear water flowing, the outdoors water tank which was the only water supply for homes outside of the main cities, those tanks filling with water for the first time in years. Old Downer mentions that he has heard that some children of three and four have never seen rain and rush, screaming back into the house on waking and finding water flowing over the earth. Not long after the rain, there is the coming of birds in their thousands to the lake, a thing Upfield has described in other novels.

This description was one that Upfield used once before in one of his earlier novels, ‘Gripped By Drought’, one of his non Bony novels. In that novel is a descriptive passage, pages in length of the breaking of a long drought with a long lasting rain storm, It may seem quite a bland thing to discuss in the text of a novel, but the descriptive passages, both in that earlier novel and this one are almost gripping in the way Upfield so evocatively details the rain and its effect on people.

Upfield also mentions assimilation of the aborigines, a thing that he is now comfortable when writing about it, and something that appears at length in most of his subsequent novels. He mentions that is not an easy process of just removing the aborigines from their outback areas to the towns and cities, but something that will take generations. In the same vein, he mentions that the local aborigines of this district are two generations towards assimilation, but still mainly tribal in their outlook.

For the first time, Upfield explains the marking of the tribal women, having previously explained in other books the tribal markings of the men. He explains that women who are no longer girls have a front tooth knocked out to signify that they have been sealed into the tribe. Those promised to men, or already ‘married’ have two short cicatrices between their breasts in the shape of chevrons.

Upfield quite deliberately does this without tipping off the reader as to his motive,  doing this specifically, when it is later shown that one of the young women has not been promised to a tribal aborigine, as young and beautiful as she is, another little clue in the making.

Bony is talking to one of the female characters in the book, Robin, about the aborigines, and one in particular, named Lottee, the girl in question from the previous paragraph, and how, even though she is aboriginal, she is far from being what we all think of the aborigines, Bony mentioning that we think of them as stupid, and dumb, and while thinking like this might make us feel a lot better, in actual fact the aborigines are probably hundreds of years ahead of us as white people.

He mentions that he knows of an aboriginal head man (probably alluding to Illawalli) who could have skipped five thousand years to come down to this age, mankind having deteriorated mentally and spiritually.

In answer, Robin mentions that Bony is old enough to be her grandfather, alluding on one of the first occasions in Upfield’s novels in a passing way to Bony’s advancing age.

Towards the culmination of the investigation, Bony alludes to furthering the local Policeman’s career by wangling him a transfer to the eastern coastal regions.

Again, there is mention of smoke signals and how the local aborigines use them to communicate.

As Bony explains the motives and the method at the end of the investigation, he describes a form of aboriginal marriage in great detail, and how, upon being found out, young Eric Downer, now married to Lottee, committed the murders after being found out, and fearing exposure of something still considered to be taboo, that of a white man marrying an aboriginal woman in the aboriginal way, Eric not wishing to marry her in the approved white man’s way.

After explaining all this to the gathered family members and fellow Police, Eric is resigned to the fact that it is all over.

Bony meticulously explains the whole scenario, how the murders were committed, and the efforts made to cover the murders, aided by the aborigines, who in some way, see this marriage as another way of moving towards assimilation. Robin is also an amateur artist, and has unwittingly painted a painting depicting this mixture of the two races, also carrying a torch for Eric, who has been with Lottee from childhood.

Lottee sees her man in danger, and comes to Eric’s rescue, aided by the pointing of a Winchester point thirty two repeating rifle at Bony, and then escaping with Eric, both fleeing out onto the lake in a small boat, pulling the plug, and both drowning in each others arms.

Upfield ends this description with the poignantly written, ‘Somewhere, a tree shall receive them’.

This statement could carry numerous connotations. The one I tend to believe is that it could stem from aboriginal culture about star crossed lovers who cannot be together, except in death, and the only way they can be joined together is inside a tree, where they both go after death.

This tree analogy has been used by Upfield previously, in the story ‘Murder Must Wait’, where childless couples get babies from the source, a tree.

Upfield mentions the insides of trees in a few of his novels, in much the same vein as he uses the inside of caves.

There is no similarity in those mentions, as each is explained differently, as an integral part of each of those different stories.

The cave analogy can be literally explained as one thing or another as being indicative of something inside Upfield’s head, and pointing to something similar in each case, but I prefer to believe that each mention only concerns that story in particular.

This is another startling story, so brilliantly and evocatively written.

Although it may seem a little tame in the build up, it evolves into another of those masterpieces, and as is usually the case with these later novels, the crime itself is almost pushed into the background as Upfield brilliantly explains thinking that in fact was decades before its time.