22 January 2014

Review: DEATH OF A SWAGMAN, Arthur Upfield

  • first published 1945
  • this edition published by Angus & Robertson 1994
  • ISBN 0-207-18582-4
  • 256 pages
  • setting: Lake Mungo in south-western New South Wales
Synopsis (Amazon)

In an isolated hut not far from the sleepy country town of Merino, stockman George Kendall is found dead and it looks very much like murder. Six weeks later, when the murderer is still at large, another stockman turns up in the township and, as a first move, provokes the local sergeant to lock him up.

This particular stockman is Detective-Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte, and there's method in his seeming madness. While serving a semi-detention sentence and being made to paint the police station, he wears the best of all possible disguises for a policeman on the trail of a ruthless and single-minded killer.

My Take

The editorial note at the front of the book will be of interest:
"Part of the appeal of Arthur Upfield's stories lies in their authentic portrayal of many aspects of outback Australian life in the 1930s and into the 1950s. The dialogue, especially, is a faithful evocation of how people spoke. Hence, these books reflect and depict the attitudes and ways of speech, particularly with regard to Aborigines and to women, which were then commonplace. In reprinting these books the publisher does not endorse the attitudes or opinions they express."

There is considerable similarity between Bony and his contemporary Hercule Poirot. Both emphasise the importance of observation in their methods of detection. In this book Bony is able to move freely among the people of the town of Merino because his real identity is kept secret. He collects information, and checks alibis, without those he is checking suspecting.

The other similarity with Poirot lies in his confidence that he will solve the crime in the end. He does not take on cases that will not provide a challenge and treats all the evidence as puzzle to be correctly assembled.

In the 1930s Bony would have been a conundrum is Australian society: an Aboriginal half caste, with a better education than 99% of the population. 

I think the writing comes across as a little dated until the reader becomes immersed in the puzzle Bony is solving. One interesting aspect of this novel are the coded messages itinerant swagmen are leaving in shearing sheds and at station gates. They look like noughts and crosses puzzles but contain information about how the cook and manager of the place will treat a swaggie. And of course, set at the beginning of the Depression, swaggies looking for work are common in the outback.

An interesting read for those who have not met this author before.

My rating: 4.4

About the author

Arthur Upfield (1890-1964) was an Australian crime fiction author who wrote 34 novels 1926-1966, with "Bony" making his first appearance in 1929, and then subsequently in 28 other novels. Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte was the son of an unknown white man and an aboriginal mother, a gentleman and genius of criminal science, with an M.A. degree from Brisbane University. In his work Bony frequently faces race prejudices but wins them with his wit and smile.

Find out more


Anonymous said...

Kerrie - I understand what you mean about the dated writing, but to me this is still a great series. Thanks for highlighting one of the entries in it.

Bev Hankins said...

I've not read this one by Upfield--but I've enjoyed the ones I've read...most particularly An Author Bites the Dust.

Bill Selnes said...

Kerrie: Finding this series has been one of my more interesting blogging experiences. I liked this book but did not think it one of the best I have read in the series.

Icewineanne said...

Terrific review Kerrie. I have wanted to read some of this series but perhaps this isn’t the book to start with 😉


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