Book Review – The White Savage – Arthur W Upfield

Posted on Sun 04/24/2011 by


THE WHITE SAVAGE. (Also published under the title Bony And The White Savage)

First published – (U.S.) Doubleday – 1961

Second Publisher – (UK) Heinemann – 1961 (under the title Bony And The White Savage)

Third Publisher – (UK) Pan Books  – 1964

Fourth Publisher – (Australia) Arkon (A subsidiary of Angus and Robertson) – 1984

Fifth Publisher – (Australia) Hinkler – 1994

This Edition – Pan Books – Sixth Printing – 1975

Copyright – Arthur W Upfield – 1961

This novel is set in the fictitious town of Timbertown on Rhudder’s Inlet, near the Leeuwin Light, in the South West corner of Western Australia.

Bony has been sent there in an attempt to capture a dangerous criminal who is visiting the home of his family.

He again uses the alias of Nathaniel Bonnar, Nat Bonnar, as in the earlier two novels prior to this one.

He is known for who and what he is to some of the local people, but not to most of the characters in the book.

Bony is after Marvin Rhudder, a local boy who was all set to make it good when, on his last visit home prior to graduation, he raped one of the local girls. He then fled the state and then went on a rampage in the Eastern States. He was subsequently arrested, tried and convicted, sentenced to, and then escaped from jail in New South Wales, committing a murder in South Australia, on his way back to Western Australia.

Bony is sent to capture him, and to make sure that he is taken alive, so that he can hang for the murder in South Australia.

This is one occasion where Upfield has Bony outraged about the murder and desperately wanting Rhudder to be taken alive to hang, his attitude here of the vengeful agent of justice, and not as laid back as he has previously been.

Upfield again effectively uses the descriptions of the surrounding area to enhance the evocative picture of the locale.

Rhudder is assumed to be hiding out in one of the numerous cave systems in the area, another use of caves in one of Upfield’s novels.

Bony has to try and track the monster, as he calls him, but not to let on to the locals as to what he is doing for fear of their ‘twigging’ to him, and allowing time for Rhudder to escape.

Some of the members of Rhudder’s family are not happy to see Marvin, and they warn him off, but one of the local girls, who has loved him from the outset looks after him, keeping him supplied with food.

As part of Bony’s undercover persona, he mentions that he is a Station owner from the mid north of WA. The Police know he has come from an investigation at Shark Bay to the north, and the correct laying down of this alias comes in handy when it is checked by one of the persons who knows Marvin is in the area, and if Bony is found out, then Rhudder will flee.

Bony also lines up some members of the extended family of one of the locals, as this also is something that could be checked, all of this an elaborate way of setting up Bony in his undercover role.

Rhudder stays in a shack that is used as a farm out station, and Bony deduces that he has been staying there by just looking over the place.

There is also mention of Marvin’s swag being hidden down inside one of the huge trees that are endemic in this area, these huge trees also described in great detail.

There is mention of the conditions around the area, and how you have to keep an eye on the water at all times, in case a ‘sneaker’ comes up on you and you’re not ready for it. This ‘sneaker’ is described as an Earthquake Wave, a Tsunami, and in this case Upfield has been correct not to use the erroneous title of Tidal Wave. The wave is correctly described as arising from a sub ocean earthquake way out to sea, and having tremendous speed and height when closing on the shore, a very effective description, considering this novel was written in 1961.

Bony is caught by one of these waves, and just misses out on being taken by it when he scrambles up the cliff face, the wave crashing at his feet, a long way up the cliff from where he was fishing at the time. Bony, now quite a keen fisherman, has hooked up a large Kingfish during the approach of the wave, and he’s not willing to allow the fish off the hook, another similar case to that of Bony fishing during an impending weather crisis, as in ‘The Mystery Of Swordfish Reef’, and a further allusion to Bony’s love of fishing, also mentioned in other books, ‘The Battling Prophet’ being another where he also fishes for Kingfish.

Specific mention is made of cars in this book. In other Upfield novels, when cars are mentioned, they are mentioned in generic form. In this one, Upfield specifically mentions by name, Holden and Vauxhall, two of the more popular cars at the time, the Holden being a red and blue one, and, this story being written in 1961, this makes this model one of only five models produced prior to this date, those being the original 48 – 215, affectionately called by its Model Number, the FX, the erstwhile FJ, the second major body shape change for the FE and the FC, then coming the third major body shape change, that being the FB, which came out in 1961, the year that this novel was written.

There is mention made of specific novels also, and here Upfield takes another swipe at the literary societies as a whole, mentioning that his characters prefer ‘blood and gutzers’ as he affectionately calls them, two in question here being the popular ‘Ivanhoe’, and the also popular ‘Peyton Place’.

There is also an esoteric mention, for me any way, about a trick Bony uses to remember something that he can’t quite place his finger on, no matter how much he tries to remember what it actually is that he is searching for. To better remember it, he forgets it completely by pushing it totally out of his mind, knowing full well that his brain, at the subconscious level will still be trying to nut it out, and when the correct answer arrives, the mind itself will push it to the forefront, thus you end up remembering something by forgetting about it.

This setting for the novel is an area famous for its wrecks, and one that gains specific reference is the ‘Hesperus’, recalling that famous heroic poem. The ‘Hesperus’ ran ashore and was wrecked in this area in 1838.

Mention is also made in passing of a tape machine, and I suppose that this form of recording facts was just coming into vogue at the time. This mention here is in the form of a quote about someone being expected to remember everything, like a tape machine.

Bony is using the aid of a renowned aboriginal tracker, Lew, and Upfield goes into great detail of old Lew’s abilities, Bony often talking at length with this old gentleman, Upfield alluding that here, Bony, the world’s greatest tracker can learn something he did not already know.

Old Lew says that he learned the art of tracking from his old man, and more than once was warned to keep away from Marvin, as he was ‘Kedic Feller’, as Lew explains it. Old Lew’s father must have known this from a very early time when Marvin himself was quite young, and he went to great pains to tell his son, Lew, to keep away from Marvin. ‘Kedic’, in aboriginal lore means ‘bad medicine’ in our language, and Bony is secretly surprised that old Lew knows this just by reading the tracks of a person.

That something this can be picked up from tracks alone intrigues Bony, as old Lew inherently knew who he was tracking without being told, and also knew that he was ‘Kedic Feller’. Old Lew even mentions that his father could invariably tell what a man was thinking just from his tracks.

As no one in the district is supposed to know that Marvin has murdered someone, and without knowing any of this, old Lew says that this man he is tracking has killed someone.

Bony is astounded, and presses Lew, who informs him that it is also an art he learned from his father, who could also do the same thing.

Lew treats it all as matter of fact that he can do this, and that it is really nothing out of the ordinary.

There is also an accurate description of the notes of a butcher bird, and how they test one solitary note prior to the single call, this being answered by the female, to make it sound like one continuous call, the male testing the single note before his four note call. There is also mention of the magpies getting in on the act and also calling out, as a form of competition, the resultant cacophony of noise being described as from an orchestra, all the birds singing together as one, with all stops out, but the thing that intrigues Bony is why this orchestra at three in the morning.

There is also an esoteric mention of an old adage, ‘Alfred and his cakes’, when Bony allows the kettle to boil dry on the Primus stove. Bony put the kettle on and promptly forgot about it, thinking about why the birds were so noisy so early in the morning. As far as I can gather this is an old adage concerning an English King called Alfred. He awoke one night wanting a hot drink of some sort, and not wanting to disturb the servants, he set about the task on his own, filling the kettle and placing it on the stove. Then he decided that he also wanted some small cakes to eat, and went off in search of them. Whilst looking, the kettle boiled dry and then promptly melted on top of the stove. Hence ‘Alfred and the cakes’.

Bony talks of his son who is a medical missionary in the Islands, how brilliant he is, and how he’s won scholarship after scholarship, now that he’s finally graduated from University.

Bony is visiting with the Rhudder’s, who are unaware of their sons presence in the district, as his father has disowned him and threatens to shoot him on sight. The father is a collector of old things pertaining to the sea, and Bony pores over some of his old maps of the district, from Portuguese and Dutch cartographers, some prior to white settlement in Australia.

Bony affectionately brings to mind memories of his wife, and how she can read him like a book, also saying that she is his sweetheart, his wife, the mother of his sons, and also his own mother.

There is also mention of the old swaggies way of cooking steak. Even though Bony had a frypan, he still preferred the old method. In this manner, he scours clean an old long handled shovel, slightly greases it and cooks the steaks on this implement over the coals of a smokeless fire.

There is an in depth conversation of a cricket match just before Marvin left the final time before his descent into the pit of his crimes. In this conversation with Fred, another aboriginal tracker, Fred describes how good Marvin was at the game, and how he deliberately tried to hit Fred, smashing the ball back at him with force, and how Marvin delighted in this, a further indication as to the cruel character that Marvin Rhudder was, even before his crimes started.

The culmination of the investigation takes place in another of Upfield’s cave scenes. Bony descends the cliff face into the cave with his trusted automatic, and oddly, this is one of the few times that Upfield has Bony with this, his favoured weapon.

Both Bony and old Lew think that Marvin is in the cave, and are all set to take him there.

The cave is, however, empty, and Bony conducts a lengthy search, finding nothing except what seems to be an altar.

He waits in the cave, and Sadie Jukes, the woman who has loved Marvin all along enters the cave.

Bony hides, and watches as Sadie removes all her clothing, replacing it with the clothes she wore on that last fateful day of the cricket match.

Bony is intrigued, and watches what takes place, slowly becoming aware that Marvin is now dead, and Sadie is the one who has killed him, burying him in this, her own secret cave, where she can come to reminisce.

Bony disrupts her and then the whole story comes out about how Marvin really did not care for her at all, because, in Marvin’s words, he only liked women who resisted, and Sadie would not be one of these.

He was also fearfully scared that he was going to hang for murder, and was only waiting to escape to another country.

Sadie killed him, and Bony wonders at her strength of character when told that she stopped shooting after firing only three times.

She wanted to remember Marvin as he really was, her knight in shining mail, as she puts it.

Bony then goes into damage control, making sure that Sadie says nothing to anybody until he gets the story straight with the police, and then, having done that, he will get back to her with the version of the truth that will see that she does not go to jail. He also tells her to snap out of it, and not to remember this filthy swine who really cared nothing for her anyway. She is duly arrested, the body is dug up, there is an inquest, and Sadie goes free.

The cave scene is again explained in lengthy detail, as have all of Upfield’s cave scenes, the context open to any interpretation that wishes to be placed upon it.

This is another novel that showcases Upfield’s superb ability at telling a story.