Book Review – Journey To The Hangman (Bony And The Mouse) – Arthur W Upfield

Posted on Sat 04/23/2011 by


JOURNEY TO THE HANGMAN (Also published under the title Bony And The Mouse)

First published – (U.S.) Doubleday – 1959
Second Publisher – (UK) Heinemann – 1959 (under the title Bony And The Mouse)
Third Publisher – (UK) Pan Books (In association with Heinemann)  – 1961
This Edition – Pan Books – Ninth Printing – 1975
Copyright – Arthur Upfield – 1959

This is again another of those novels from this period that was published in the U.S. and the UK at the same time with different titles, and for TV, this novel was titled Bony And The Daybreak Killer.

This novel is set in Western Australia, in the make believe town of Daybreak, approximately 150 miles north of Laverton, a long way away to the north of Kalgoorlie, here mentioned as ‘The Golden Mile’.

There is an actual mention of time in this book, that being 1958.

The novel gains its Bony And The Mouse title from the way Bony sets up his investigation, evocatively describing the way a cat pursues a mouse by just waiting for the mouse to do all the work, at first hiding, scared of the cat and what it knows. Then the mouse, slowly becoming a little more confident that the cat is not really interested in him, slowly moves out into the domain of the cat, finding that the cat seems not to care. All the while the cat is just waiting for the mouse to become so blase as to his whereabouts, that he removes himself so far from his avenue of escape, the hole, and, unable to turn around and return to the safety of his hole in the wall more quickly than the cat can capture him, he is caught without realising that he has allowed himself to be so outmanoeuvred. This analogy is used in numerous places throughout the book.

The title for the U.S. and for the TV series lacks the intrigue of the books title.

I can’t place my finger on the why, but this always seems to have been one of my favourites. I suspect that Upfield, now seventy one when he wrote this, was at the absolute top of his craft. All the descriptions are evocatively explained, Upfield having had years of experience in the outback, with the aborigines, and the knowledge that his art can better explain his beautiful descriptions than if he just wrote down a plot for a murder.

Here he uses a simple analogy, (that of the cat and the mouse, as opposed to his earlier one of the stingray amongst the fishes) and then expands this analogy out into the plot.

QANTAS gets a mention in the first line of the book, meaning that Bony is now using modern transport to arrive at the scene of his investigations.

Bony arrives at Daybreak to investigate three murders, the first being that of an aboriginal girl, clubbed to death. The second was a farmers wife, strangled at home while on her own, her husband being away at the time. The third was that of a mechanic who had his throat cut. None of the murders seem to be related, except for the fact that at the scene of the second and the third, footprints were found of a person who limped.

Armed with these plaster casts of these footprints, Bony arrives to solve the case. As he rides over the hill, just prior to entering the township, he finds a man poised over a young girl who has a large Mulga splinter embedded in her foot. The wound is festering badly and the young woman is exhorting the man to cut the long splinter out, which he does not seem to be able to do.

Bony sends the young boy for help while he sees to the removal of the splinter. When the girl arrives at the towns small medical facility, he introduces himself as Nat Bonnar, but Sister Jenks is right onto him and recognises him for just who he is. She agrees to keep his identity secret, as Bony wishes to work under the cover of his alias. Nat then gets a job with Harmon, the local Policeman as a horse breaker.

While this novel was written in 1959, there is something in it that is really intriguing.

It is in the form of a photo that Bony is looking at. He and Sister Jenks are talking about how the aborigines are assimilating, and they are discussing how aboriginal infanticide seems to have been declining. She shows him a photograph of a fairly large group of aboriginal babies and young children, being closely looked after by two apparently ferocious dingos. These dingos have been trained by the aborigines for just that purpose, and apparently this was not so rare a thing.

Upon reading this, I immediately recalled the Azaria Chamberlain case in real life, and how the aborigines were involved in that case, and, without drawing any conclusions that I will put to paper, it made me think very closely on the similarities that may be involved. They say that the truth is stranger than fiction. It somehow seems to place a different perspective on things.

Constable Harmon is the resident Police Officer in the township. His wife and sister were returning from a trip to Kalgoorlie when the car they were in was hit by a car driven by two drunken youths, killing his wife and permanently crippling his sister. This causes Harmon to have a biassed view of young men, Tony Carr being the young man in question here, because he being strongly suspected of committing the murders, as he limps on his right leg, and has a Police record from the Eastern States.

Bony talks with Melody Sam Loader, the virtual owner of the town, owning everything excepting the Police station and the GPO, (the General Post Office, as they were called at that time) all this from his discovery of gold a long time ago. Sam is another of those larger than life persons affectionately called ‘The Spirit Of Australia’. Sam mentions that he planted the Pepper trees that are at the entrance to the town, ‘way back in ‘98′, obviously meaning 1898, placing Sam at nearly eighty or more, considering the fact that when he arrived there in the beginning, he was in his early twenties at least.

Sam exhorts Bony to work for him, not only as the barman, but in the capacity of tracker to try and work out who is committing the murders, safe in his own knowledge that it is not young Carr. Harmon also exhorts Bony to help him in this investigation, so Bony is actively involved doing what he is supposed to be doing, only here doing it without their knowledge as to who he really is.

There is a very clever explanation of what attitudes towards the aborigines were like when Sam mentions that they should not be forced to assimilate, as they are the only decent people around the place, the white ways being that of greed and corruption at every turn, while the aborigines are living a more just life without the interference of the whites who desperately want to turn them into white people of their own type, except for the black skin.

Again, where there is contact with the aborigines, there is a descriptive passage of how Bony meets with them, the etiquette involved in this meeting, and the time taken on the formalities of introductions, Bony removing his upper clothing to show that he is a high ranking man from a far away people, and that, besides being a ‘white feller policeman’, he is also a very powerful aboriginal person, having all the trappings that these markings entail.

There is also a mention of the Kurdaitcha Man, and how it seems to be mysterious that the aborigines, seemingly so purportedly involved with the first killing have been missing, away on walkabout, at the time of the other two murders. Bony is intrigued at this, and asks the chief and his medicine man why, and the shutters immediately go up, and Bony is seemingly left out in the cold.

There is also mention that these crimes could be the work of a serial killer, again a mention that seems to be supposedly out of its time, set as it is in 1958, 1959, that term not coming into widespread use until a period of time almost decades later.

There is mention from an unknowing source, when questioned as to his knowledge, that he, Nat Bonnar, could even have been a policeman. Bony mentions that he tried once, and his instructor at the barracks said that he would not make a policeman’s bootlace, a possible reference that Colonel Spendor may have been Bony’s instructor, as this seems to be one of Bony’s favourite ways of describing his beloved commissioner, who uses this analogy quite often in reference to Bony.

A further murder is committed, this time Sam’s daughter, and this time, Carr is directly implicated, when sandshoes worn by the killer are found at his door. He is duly arrested, and looks like he might just be lynched by a crazed mob, out for rough justice. When this happens, there is direct mention that this is 1958, not 1858, giving an actual date to the book.

Bony tracks the killer through some pretty tough country, and finds that the killer tripped on a mulga stump, and for quite a distance thereafter, did not limp, before starting to limp again, Bony now believing that Carr has been set up to look as if he is the killer. Bony knows this, but putting it all before a judge and jury is quite another thing.

The aborigines are linked to this case and Bony, in an effort to flush out the real killer must expose some things to gain the confidence of them, and to know why they are covering up for the real killer, and in the process, directly implicating young Carr.

There is a situation where Bony sits and discusses Black Law with the elders. The situation is fraught with an undercurrent of suspense as Bony explains how and why the first murder, that of the aboriginal girl was committed. She evidently was out walking with a white girl, and the white girl unwittingly passed through the tribal sacred site where they keep their ancient things, and bury their men. The aboriginal girl was duly fearful of entering this area, and went around the sacred area. Because they could not kill the white girl for violating their sacred site, they wrongly killed the aboriginal girl. In the act of doing this, they were seen by the real killer of the three persons, who blackmails them into believing that he will expose them if they do not assist him with his plan, hence the decided non involvement and prevarication of the aborigines when the other murders are committed.

There is mention of Ned Kelly. However, this is not done in the same vein that any mention of Kelly raises in the widespread community, where he is almost revered. Here, Bony paints Ned Kelly, not really in the same vein as Robin Hood, but as a common murderer.

Smoke signals are again used by the aborigines as a form of communication amongst themselves.

There is direct mention of Sputnik, the first Russian Satellite, which was launched on the 4th October, 1957, again giving a credible time for the novel, Upfield again, slowly inserting something into the plot that was current at the time.

At the climax of the story, Upfield uses a form that he has not used before this, that of writing his chapters in parts, as he uses the analogy of the mouse in his quest to arrest the real killer.

Upfield again skilfully leaves the end result down to an explanation right at the end of the story.  Carr’s boss is the real murderer, and has committed these murders to a plan, culminating in the murder of Sam’s daughter, which is supposed to be the last murder, and this directly and irrevocably implicating Carr as the murderer, solving the problem of disposing of the alleged murderer and achieving his direct result. It turns out that when he married Sam’s other daughter, she was promptly cut out of Sam’s will for doing so. The murderer, incensed at this, evolved a plan to kill the other daughter, so that the only beneficiary then left was his wife. He sponsored Carr, and fostered the relationship, standing up for him to deflect suspicion, all the while implicating him.

The killer, when exposed by Bony then flees into the aboriginal sacred site, knowing that the aborigines have helped Bony, but would be fearful of white men tramping all over their sacred site. There is then an involved explanation of just how Bony uses aboriginal ways to force the killer to surrender, without a shot being fired in anger. The killer believes, as does everyone else that supposed aboriginal ‘magic’ cannot work on civilised and sophisticated white people.

Upfield evocatively explains exactly how they do this, the white man gradually becoming paranoid without even knowing quite why it has happened, in the end surrendering gleefully, just glad that it is all over. Upfield also explains how the aborigines went about disarming a heavily armed man ready to shoot it out, and making him so docile as to give up, just to be free.

Again, this is Upfield at his absolute best.