Book Review – The Will Of The Tribe – Arthur W Upfield

Posted on Mon 04/25/2011 by



First published – (U.S.) Doubleday – 1962

Second Publisher – (UK) Heinemann – 1962

Third Publisher – (UK) Pan Books  – 1965

This Edition – Pan Books – Third Printing – 1974

Copyright – Arthur W Upfield – 1962

This novel is set in the North Eastern area of Western Australia, in an area around the township of Halls Creek, which is about 70 Miles or so from the border between WA and the Northern Territory.

The case is centred on the Wolfe Creek Meteorite Crater, and the odd thing here is that Upfield himself actually led an expedition to this Crater in 1948, sponsored by the Australian Geographic Society, thus gaining further knowledge for another of the settings that he uses in his novels, having also set two of his other novels around this area.

This novel closely links in with the aborigines, hence the title itself.

Woven throughout the whole book is an underlying plot in which Upfield tries to deal with the complex issue of the assimilation of aborigines, which had become a problem around this time.

It seemed that people had a fairly sanguine view that this was going to be a relatively easy thing to do, and that the aborigines would just become like the white people. The problem turned out to be nowhere near as easy as was expected, and has become more of a problem as time goes on.

This novel tries to explain some of the complexities that lie at the base of the issue. It does not deal with them, except to say that maybe we should never have even started to try and assimilate them at all, but just learn from them.

Upfield very cleverly weaves this sub plot into virtually every aspect of this novel, giving a startling insight into how Upfield felt about the matter himself, and here he treats the problem in a way that is very sympathetic towards the aborigines, and in no way comes across as being condescending towards the problem. In the main, he offers no solutions, as the matter was one bigger than he, as an author, had the power to solve.

A body is found in the centre of the crater, and it seems that the aborigines know an awful lot more than they are letting on to. They are mysteriously absent when the body is found, unluckily for them, by a low flying aircraft, and are also again mysteriously absent when the investigating people need the services of trackers, aboriginal of course, with knowledge of the local area, hence outside trackers are brought in.

These trackers are understandably not willing to let the white people know that they are of the opinion that the local aborigines might be involved, possibly due to the fact that they would tend to stick together and not wish to drop the local aborigines in it, so to speak.

The body, in itself is a source of secrecy in the early parts of the book. Evidently, Bony has been brought onto the case as there are some Government Departments that are interested, and Bony knows of the situation, but keeps it secret from all concerned, and I think he does this as the body itself is integral to the reason for the murder, (obviously) and if he lets on too early, then the cat is out of the bag, so to speak, and everyone concerned shuts up shop, so he purposely keeps the suspected motive a secret, intending that the supposed killers think that his investigation is centred around something completely different indeed.

There is some conjecture in the early part of the book as to when the meteorite actually did crash to earth. Some suggest that it was three hundred years ago, and another story says that it might have been as long as six hundred years ago, and yet some others surmising that it was at the turn of the twentieth century. This latter theory is one that Upfield himself seems to adhere to, as he thinks that if it was three hundred years ago or even farther back in time, then it would be in aboriginal legend, and as it does not seem to be in their legends, then it stands to reason that the impact was too recent to find its way into their legends. The locals seem to believe also that it fell at the turn of the century and not three hundred years ago, as word of mouth passed down from the previous generation bears out the noise of its passing and the impact.

Bony stays with a local family, the Brentner’s, and everyone knows that he is a DI with the Police Service, and investigating the murder.

The Brentner’s have aboriginal help, and here is where Upfield weaves the problem of assimilation into his novel.

Two aborigines from the local tribe, which is part of the way towards assimilation, are working for the Brentner’s. One of them is Captain, a male full blood, who has been educated and is working as the senior stockman on the Brentner’s property. The other is Tessa, who has also been educated, and is living and working in the ‘Big House’. She has been taught as a white person, dresses and acts as a white person, and seemingly now looks down her nose at the aborigines she has come from.

The Brentner’s have hopes, as does Tessa herself, that she will go away to Teachers College and come back as a fully fledged teacher, the Brentner’s hoping that their social experiment will lead to something worthwhile in the long run.

Upfield explains that as innocuous as the crater itself looks, it really does have steep sides, and here he puts the knowledge he gained from his own investigation of the crater to good use, explaining how Bony finds it difficult to enter, and that the carriers of the dumped body would have had quite a hard task indeed to bring the body into the centre of the crater, another question in itself being why the crater was picked at all as a dumping place for the body.

Why not just bury it somewhere where it would never be found, hence the little mysteries that surface during the story.

Bony automatically suspects the aborigines, as no tracks were found, this leading him to believe that they used the method of the dreaded ‘Kurdaitcha Man’ to cover their feet, thus not leaving any tracks.

During his own detailed investigation at the site where the body was found, Bony discovers tiny remains of hessian, again leading him to further believe that the aborigines were involved, but in this case aborigines who have had some sort of integration, as wild aborigines would use the age old method of feathers glued to their feet with animals blood.

Upfield again has Bony up at night with his woollen overshoes, the wool on the outside, his own method of Kurdaitcha shoes.

Bony also sees numerous meteors in the sky over the Kimberley, as he has in his other two novels set in this area. Scarcely a minute passes without his seeing a meteor in the sky overhead. This is mentioned in a couple of places throughout the book.

Bony visits the tribe as part of his investigation, and here Upfield explains a little of the tribes in the area.

This tribe is an off shoot of the Bingongina Nation, who were loosely affiliated with the Musgrave tribe who belong to this same nation.

Upfield again explains the initial meeting of Bony and Gup Gup, the head man, and this he does in great detail, taking intricate notice of all the formalities associated with this initial meeting. He explains that the extremely ancient Gup Gup takes no notice of the white way of dressing, being naked save for the pubic tassel. He has cicatrices on his back denoting that he is from the totem of the frog men.

There is mention that Bony is the first person to have approached them without their knowledge, Bony seemingly having appeared in their camp as if he just materialised out of the blue to a position inside their camp, a thing that Upfield has often mentioned numerous times previously in his other novels. The medicine man is dumbfounded and seems to think that Bony is some sort of magic man and that his mother is responsible for his ability to be able to do this.

Bony just sits and waits for their approach, fully aware that the manner of his approach has stunned them.

Gup Gup is aware of who Bony is, recalling that he is the one who brought white feller law to the killers of Constable Stenhouse, a direct reference to the ‘Cake In The Hat Box’ novel, mentioning that Bony is one cunning feller.

At their meeting, Bony explains that he knows of Gup Gup from his old chief, Illawalli. Gup Gup explains that he knows of Bony, and of Illawalli, (incidentally here explained as being of the Cassowary totem, and not the original Emu totem) and how Bony solved the case earlier mentioned. (Hat Box)

Gup Gup also mentions that he knows of the boning of Bony by the Kalshut tribe. This sets Bony right back on his heels, that Gup Gup should know of this, as this happened sixteen hundred miles away, and happened fifteen years prior to this. (This minor inaccuracy I would place down to author’s licence, and does not detract in any way to the way that it has been brought up in the context of this novel. The tribe was the Kalchut, and this novel, ‘The Bone Is Pointed’ was first published and most probably set in 1938, a full 24 years prior to the setting and the writing of this novel.)

Bony does not let on that this knowledge has set him back on his heels, as this would probably give Gup Gup the advantage.

There is a very witty exchange between the Medicine man, Poppa by name, and Bony, Poppa trying to intimidate Bony with a tale from legend about a man who ‘slags off’ at the medicine man, hoping to frighten Bony. Bony replies with his own version of a legend, updating it to modern times, a startling repartee that draws a smile from Gup Gup, a backdown from Poppa, and further enhancing Bony’s stance in the eyes of the most important man in this exchange, those of Gup Gup himself, who then tells Poppa to, in effect, ‘butt out’.

Then there is an exchange between Bony and Gup Gup, who thinks he can outsmart Bony, but each time he tries, Bony outwits him, neither wishing to show the other that they will back down from their stance. The shutters go up and Bony knows that it would be futile to try and obtain knowledge from Gup Gup that he is not willing to allow Bony to hear.

Upfield cleverly explains this meeting in great detail, using this exchange to inform the reader of the ways of the aborigine. He compares the running of an aboriginal tribe to the effective management of a Military Battalion. Poppa, the Medicine Man, is effectively linked as being akin to the Adjutant, and Upfield further explains that all the writings of Freud are things that Poppa would have effectively learned very early on his career as Medicine Man.

Upfield brings into the plot a group of Politicians conducting a tour of the North to find out about conditions surrounding the local people, and how they are coping. This exchange is dealt in more of a humourous vein than has been dealt with in previous novels, and further emphasises Upfield’s humourously derogatory views of the ways that Politicians spend taxpayer’s money.

There is an exchange between Bony and Tessa, about her aspirations, and her views on assimilation. She seems to have effectively grown into it quite easily, and Upfield deliberately has her as almost white, well dressed, well spoken, well educated, and with deliberate views on her future once she graduates from college. Bony has some inkling of her real future, and explains to her that with the death of Gup Gup, all the old ways will slowly pass away with him, and how does she feel about that. She explains that it is probably a good thing as it will then make the task of assimilation a little easier.

Bony mentions a simile about mixed marriages, knowing that one of the local white stockmen has his eyes on Tessa, and how that he does not approve of these marriages, knowing how badly they are received. He pointedly refers to his marriage to Marie, who is also a half caste like he is, and how the two of them are treated with some condescension, sometimes with downright rudeness. In the discussion, Bony remembers another case of such a linking between a white man and an aboriginal woman, a pointed reference to the story in ‘Bony And The Black Virgin’.

Bony alludes to his own old age in an exchange with Captain, who seems to be deeply involved in the whole saga.

Captain tries to keep Bony from going to see Gup Gup and to tell him how they he is being closely tailed during the whole course of his investigation. Captain tells Bony not to bother old Gup Gup with this as Gup Gup is nearly one hundred not out. Bony says that he himself is nearly one hundred not out.

This exchange in itself draws Bony’s attention to how deeply Captain seems to be involved in the case, and is a clue in itself.

Bony discusses with Captain the difficulties of assimilation, and here Captain also has definite ideas, and these are almost the complete opposite of those of Tessa. The exchange is a definite pointer as to Upfield’s own ideas about the problem, and here he very effectively uses Captain to explain that the way of the aborigine is morally better than the way of the white man. Captain uses a description of the Garden of Eden, explaining how that when God expelled Adam and Eve through the front door, the only occupants left there were an aboriginal man and an aboriginal woman who crept in through the back door. Bony tells Captain that he made up that legend, and Captain counters with a simile referring to an analogy between the Garden of Eden and the ways of the white when compared to those of the aborigine.

During this exchange, Bony alludes to the fact that he has an idea about the dead man in the crater, and that it is closely linked to the aborigines, and that Gup Gup knows who the dead man was and how he got where he was. Captain mentions that this is undoubtedly so, but that it has a lot to do with dragging the aborigine down to the white mans level, and Gup Gup will not allow that to happen.

It seems that Captain is protecting Gup Gup, and that in effect, he is protecting his own people, alluding to the fact that it may be Captain who holds the future of this tribe in his own hands, Captain knowing of the ways of both lifestyles, and using his own education to take back to his people, giving the impression that he is the one most likely to take over the leadership of this tribe, following the demise of Gup Gup, a fact reinforced later in the novel.

There is another startling and in depth look at tribal customs in respect to tribal law in this novel.

It deals with an innocuous little mention as to how Bony is being tailed. He mentions it to the Brentner’s, and Captain, in an effort to cover up the real reason, is found out by Bony. In a little power play to prove that Bony does not know what is actually happening, and has not got the better of him, Captain gets himself in a little deeper than he expected, and in his effort to conceal the cover up, has to explain his way out of it. In doing so, the story that he makes up has some connotations of breaking tribal law, and now Captain has to explain this tribal law to the Brentner’s.

Mrs Brentner is astounded at the barbarity of this law. Mr Brentner puts it down to tribal politics and seems to brush it off.

Bony knows that the full effect of the tribal law would carry an altogether different and much more severe consequence, again giving him a further clue into the case. I think that Captain knows that Bony is aware of his attempt to cover up in this way, but it all is part of the power struggle between Bony, who wants to find the truth, and Captain, who only wants the tribe to be protected from the full force of the law if the real truth comes out.

Rose Brentner, astounded at the supposed severity of the sentence implores Captain to call off the punishment, aware that in white law, this supposed little aboriginal crime is not only not a crime, but is only a breaking of social law.

Bony then has to explain to Rose that all is not as it seems, and that the real explanation is something altogether different than what has been made out by Captain.

In an effort to crack the case, Bony has to conspire with the Brentner’s, and sends them off to where the Politicians are conducting their inquiry, so that he can be alone to try and bring the case to a head. He also wants them to take Tessa with them, Bony now suspicious of Captain’s feelings towards Tessa, who, as it transpires does not go with the Brentner’s, but stays behind in a slight change to Bony’s plans.

A horse is woven into the plot, not as a major clue to the solving of the murder per se, but as a clue to the aboriginal interest. Bony finds the buried body of the horse, ridden to exhaustion and subsequent death by an aborigine on Bony’s trail. The tribe try to cover up this death of the horse. Kurt Brentner is furious. Bony does not let on that he knows the full story of the missing horse, as he then uses this to further accelerate the solving of this case.

As a result of all of this, the aborigines are becoming so involved in the case that it seems that they are going too far out of their way to try and cover it up, and this surely means that Bony has them worried, and will inexorably find out all about it.

Smoke signals get a vague mention, but seemingly not so much in the way of a message, as an announcement of the coming of the tribe.

Bony finds the place where the tribe has all its secret things buried, and where the tribal initiations are carried out. This now gives him the power over the tribe, as this discovery by an outsider is considered to be something that is very scary to the tribal elders.

There is a very powerful explanation as to the magic involved in this discovery of all the tribal pieces of magic, their pointing implements, and Churinga Stones, and Bony is astounded to find an ivory Buddha in with these magic stones, something so obviously out of place here as to provide a further clue in itself.

Towards the end of the book, Upfield starts to weave together all these intricate little things towards one cohesive result.

Usually, as is the case with numerous crime writers, the author would prefer to leave the case unresolved until the last few pages. This was usually the case with Upfield himself, but this is such an intricately woven story that these events as needs must, have to start from a long way out.

Bony offers explanations for what has been happening and starts to resolve the case. He again visits the aboriginal camp, and this time, formalities go out the window. He alludes to all their little dramas and solves them at Gup Gup’s little fire, both Gup Gup and Poppa aware that Bony is an awful lot more clever than they have been.

Bony also explains that Captain might just have brought trouble to them all in his effort to protect them. The meeting goes well for Bony, but the shutters have again gone up, and Bony leaves, frustrated.

Bony has a meeting with the seemingly sophisticated Tessa, when the Brentner’s leave for the meeting. She puts her foot in it, somewhat unwittingly, and some of the clues start to manifest themselves.

Bony, forearmed with this knowledge, then has it out with Captain, who seems to see the writing on the wall, and, seemingly from a supposed position of strength then finds himself caught between a rock and a hard place.

In a rage now he threatens to shoot Bony. Tessa walks in and starts to abuse Captain for his stupidity.

What follows is one of the most startling descriptions in any of Upfield’s books.

Captain pursues young Tessa while the others watch on in fascinated interest from different vantage points as the chase ensues across the vast station, one of these positions being from the tank stand. Tessa seemingly has the advantage as Captain is wearing his station boots, and she outpaces and outmanoeuvres him. The chase lasts for numerous pages, and in the process, Captain shows that he is not that far removed from the tribal aborigines as he would have himself believe, and he senses that the power of a woman is more powerful than his tribal heritage and white mans learning have brought him to believe.

Tessa, in what is a compelling analogy, gradually sheds her clothing during the pursuit, each item of clothing analogous to her falling from her supposed heights of white learning and back to the ways of the tribe.

The detail Upfield uses here forever must dispel the myth that he had no idea of the sexuality that others have said he could not express in his novels, and here it is at its most graphically expressed.

As each item of Tessa’s white style clothing is removed, we watch Tessa going back to her tribal roots, an unwitting voice inside her own head telling her exactly what to do, without her knowing herself why she was doing this.

The last item of clothing was the green silk panties and when they came off, she knew instinctively that she was really free at last.

Captain catches her and, naked, she sits on the ground and remembers something from her centuries old past, a little voice inside her own head telling her what to do. She covers herself with dirt from the ground around her, throwing it into the air, and pressing it between her breasts and between her thighs. Now she knows that Captain is really the one that she has longed to be with all along, the white education and teachers college seemingly now a thing of the past.

All this is so graphically detailed, that the reader races along, joining in with the thrill of the chase.

The pair end up happily together, Captain throwing the now willing Tessa over his shoulder and carrying her happily back to the homestead, the both of now aware that a great load seems to have been lifted from them. They then both disappear together off into the sunset.

Bony ponders this and makes plans for the following day to resolve the whole situation.

The next morning he sets out in pursuit of the missing couple and, after catching up with them, then explains the story to them so they can all get their facts straight.

Back at the homestead , Bony meticulously explains the whole story.

The murdered man was an agent of a foreign power, in this case, Indonesia.

Here Upfield brings in a story that was making the rounds at the time, one that my mother mentioned and verified.

It seems that the Indonesians have long claimed Northern Australia as one of their own Provinces, and have jealously eyed off all that land for themselves.

The murdered man was an emissary to the aborigines, claiming that the land did not belong to the white people and that they, the Indonesians, would set them free from the white yolk. (What was not mentioned was that having done that, they would then kill off all the aborigines.)

Captain, upon hearing the plan was incensed, and in collusion with Kurt Brentner, they killed the man and dumped the body in the crater, thinking that there was no way that it would be discovered before too long, and if and when it was discovered, the death could be explained away by exposure, there being no tracks.

The body was unwittingly discovered by a plane bearing mining people surveying the land. The authorities knew who the man was and set in train plans for the murder investigation.

Bony left the story up in the air saying he was satisfied that they would not realistically be brought to justice, so all the ends were tidied up neatly.

The last entry in the book deals with the fact that he wishes to see Captain and Tessa married.

This is a truly superb novel. If you wanted a masterpiece of criminal murder detection, you would be well and truly disappointed.

This book stands alone as a masterpiece in its own right.

It places the murder as almost a secondary thing and deals wholly with the supposed problem of the assimilation of aborigines. It shows that they are a moral people and that trying to force them to adopt the ways of the white man is a backward step for them in every respect. It deals with the fact of two aborigines who have been supposedly assimilated, and in reality, are still a  highly moral couple, only wanting what is best for their people, in effect wanting only ‘The Will Of The Tribe’.

You only have to read between the lines to see the full underlying story, and this is dealt with sympathetically by Upfield, here at the very peak of his craft.