Wednesday, April 20, 2011
THE SANDS OF WINDEE by Arthur W. Upfield
What a surprise! On the back cover of my copy of Arthur W. Upfield's The Sands of Windee, the critic for The Times Literary Supplement wrote, "Arthur Upfield has an extraordinary gift . . . . He has created a character, the half-caste Detective-Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte, who steps alive off the page."
I was skeptical. And in many ways, I was wrong. Not only does Napoleon Bonaparte (who is called Bony) step alive off the page, but also the setting, many of the other characters, and the plot come alive.
This is not a perfect book. The working out of the mystery might be unnecessarily complex, but The Sands of Windee is an excellent book nonetheless.
Bony's strength is his weakness. On one of the first few pages of the book, Bony tells the police sergeant with whom he is working, "You see, everyone calls me Bony. My three children do. So does my chief. Even a State Governor and a British peer have called me Bony. Although I am the greatest detective Australia has ever known, I am unworthy to polish the top-boots of the greatest emperor the world has ever known. I often think, when the humorous matron named me, that she slighted the Little Corporal."
Bony truly believes he is Australia's greatest detective. That belief reflects the pain of his early life as the story well makes clear. Bony has solved every case he has ever taken on--100%. He has never failed.
This is the story of the first case he doesn't solve. It is the story of why he chooses not to solve it. And it is the story of how he learns what matters in life.
Bony is half-Caucasian, half-Aborigine. He looks into a missing persons case he knows, in his brilliance, to be a murder. Along the way he delves into the backstories of the whole community in the tribal area of Windee Station. And he meets an amazing woman.
The young woman (with whom he has a friendship, not an overt sexual interest) is the first white woman to have treated him as a real person. She does not condescend. She does not see him as different than he is. And, as the story works out, that's what causes Bony to decide that this time he has to fail.
At least one warning about this book: Some reviews have "spoiler alerts." This is a "you might not want to read this book" alert.
The book was first published in 1931. It describes Australia in what, for some, might be a disturbing way. At one point, two hunters kill 50 kangaroos at a water hole. The same two later kill more than 800 rabbits at once.
They earn their living selling the kangaroo and rabbit skins and burning the carcasses because the carcasses collect blowflies which kill the sheep.
The two hunters work with the wealthy squatter who has hundreds of thousands of sheep on the Australian outback. The rich squatter wants the wild animals killed because they compete for life-giving water the sheep need to survive.
In other words, this book somewhat casually describes the rape of the land. It also describes native rituals, not explicitly, but still, the rituals are primitive.
So, surely I've told you enough to know what this book is about should you ever run across it.
For me, the book showed up on the remainder table of the little library in the retirement center where I live. I'm glad it did.
My copy of this book was the paperback copy pictured here. Apparently the paperback was published in the U.S. in 1985 by Charles Scribner's Sons. I found two more Upfield books nestled right next to this one, so I have two more to read.