It is hard to convey just how good Charlotte Jay’s Beat Not the Bones (1952) is.
The book involves personal greed and institutional evil.
Stella Warwick flies from Australia to Papua, New Guinea, planning to find her husband’s murderer. She is young, naive, and married only short while to the Australian colonial official who set out into bush to find a fortune.
The corrupt Australian bureaucracy in Marapi, New Guinea, tries to force Stella to abandon her plan. She wants to seek out the sorcery-ridden village she thinks holds the secret to her husband’s death.
Throughout the book, she becomes more determined, until finally, she goes into the bush to find the awful truth.
She finds the bush people more sane and oddly civilized than the bureaucratic city dwellers.
“[Our present evil is] no worse that the things we do every day,” one bureaucrat tells Stella. “It’s not so bad as giving [the natives] money they can’t spend, or stopping their festivals, or telling them they can’t dance. It’s not as bad as giving them shirts that get wet and give them pneumonia or teaching them to value valueless things. We do it all day, not only here but over the world. We teach them to gamble and drink. We give them tools and spoil their craftsmanship. We take away their capacity for happiness. We give them our diseases . . .”
He goes on from there. But what he doesn’t say is that he and the others have figured out how to become rich by destroying the native people. And they have used people like Stella’s anthropologist husband to carry out their evil.
Beat Not the Bones won the first Edgar award.
I had expected the book to be dated, but I was wrong. At least in regard to the relationship between setting and plot, the book is as modern as Jeffrey Siger’s books about Greece or Michael Stanley’s books about Africa.
Somehow the world doesn’t change.
Thanks to Soho Crime, Beat Not the Bones is widely available in hardback, paperback, and e-book editions.