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.


Joe Barone said...

Often after reading a found book like this, I look it up to learn more about it. I don't usually do that first because I want my own response to be my response.

Anyway, after writing these words, I looked up this book and found it is quite well known. Apparently there was a movie of the book and a TV series featuring the character. The author was well known, and this character, Bony, was featured in 29 books.

Live and learn. I've read a lot of mystery stories over the years, but I don't believe I had ever stumbled on this author or this book.

Many of you probably have. You were ahead of me.

Anonymous said...

I don't recall ever hearing of this author, either. I enjoy reading some of the '30's books. Besides storyline, it's interesting to read about what was going on then, how times were different.
I appreciate your reviews.

Anonymous said...

I've got all 29 of the Bony books, Joe, though I haven't read more than a handful so far. I'm saving them for...whenever. You might look out for DEATH OF A LAKE or CAKE IN THE HAT BOX (aka SINISTER STONES) or MR. JELLY'S BUSINESS (MURDER DOWN UNDER) if you're looking to try another one.

SANDS OF WINDEE was actually one of the earliest books in the series, by the way. I think it was the second.

Jeff M.

Richard R. said...

I have several paperbacks by Upfield featuring this character, this may be one of them, I haven't checked. I've not read any of them, they just looked interesting to me at the time I bought them in nice uniform edition. I may have to try one after reading your review, though the part about all the killed animals makes me flinch. Hopefully I can skip those sections and also hopefully the culprits get punished in some fashion. Good review.

George said...

I read about half of Arthur W. Upfield's 29 Bony books. They vary in quality, but the mysteries are compelling and the setting is unique.

John said...

Love these books. I have about 20 of them. My favorite parts are Bony's tracking skills, reading animal life behavior at crime scenes and how it reveals the criminals' mistakes.

I'm not sure I agree with you about "the rape of the land." The behavior of ranchers in Australia is no different those in the U.S. They have to protect their livestock after all. The rabbit migration, in particular, was an annual headache for ranchers. This is detailed in one of the Bony books. Can't remember which one. They have different titles in the UK and the US and I can't ever keep them all straight in my head anymore without resorting to a reference book.

Glad you've discovered Upfield. He really was a pioneer in the genre.

Joe Barone said...

I'm glad you find the reviews helpful. They just reflect my reading.

Jeff M.,
I too thought this was the second one. Because it is the first case he didn't solve, I guessed it was an important book in the series.

The author doesn't dwell on the hunting scenes. You would probably enjoy the book.

I have a couple more of this series, and I will be on the lookout for more.

You are correct. The practices he describes occur in the U.S. too. Also, this was 1930. I wondered if perhaps things had changed somewhat (or maybe a lot) in regard to how the balance between nature and farming are maintained in Australia now.

For me, the book was a good book which reflected life at the time. I will read more.

Billa said...

There is an indredible true story about "The Sands of Windee".
While Upfield was writing this book,
a guy with whom he was discussing the plot, used the perfect murder
method to kill three people:

One outstanding australian mystery writer
is successfully walking in the footsteps of Upfield describing outback Australia and the aboriginal world
nowadays. It's Adrian Hyland
with "Diamond Dove/Moonlight Downs" and "Gunshot Road"
(Soho Crime).

Joe Barone said...

Thanks for both pieces of information. --Joe.

Emmy said...

You have described very well what I experienced with the Bony books. Read "The Mystery of Swordfish Reef" some years ago and stored it in a box in the garage. Upon retiring in June of this year, decided to reread all the mysteries I've collected over the years. Re-read Swordfish Reef and then decided to see what else the author wrote. My astonishment at his output. I've been hunting them down t the used bookstores and online and have quite a few. Have been reading through them. Wonderful books. Great character.

Joe Barone said...

I stumbled on Bony accidentally. I live in a retirement center. A long-retired American missionary to Australia also lived here until he died. When he died, they put some of his books on the library table to be given away. The books included three Bony paperbacks. I picked them up and took them home What a wonderful find! God or fate or whatever is good!